Boyhood: Overrated Film at Its Best
To say that Boyhood is not only grossly overrated but an incredible waste of time is a bold statement. After all, the film scored an impressive 98% Freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes and was nominated for six Oscars and five Golden Globes, winning four of these awards. Well, since I like making bold statements, I will assert that the only award director Richard Linklater and his film deserve is for duping the world into providing them with the highest accolades.
For those who haven’t seen the film, or those that started it but fell asleep during the slow-paced 165-minute story, Boyhood is the story of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his journey from childhood to adolescence to young adulthood. To say more would be under-simplifying the plot. Sorry for the spoilers.
Before discussing the movie’s flaws, let me point out the positive aspects of the film. Actually, scratch that. Let me point out the only positive aspect of the film. In order to most effectively and artistically display the progression of Mason throughout the years, filming spanned the course of twelve years with the same cast. As Coltrane grew and matured, Mason grew and matured, and the same for the rest of the film’s cast. Now, admittedly, that’s pretty cool. There is no better way to describe it. Right when I heard about the film several months ago I was eager to see it. It’s especially impressive considering that filming began before household brands like Facebook and the iPhone even existed. There must have been a tremendous sense of going-with-the-flow when the movie was written, since pop culture and technological advances, some of which actually make a relatively strong impact on the plot, are inserted into the movie as they become temporally relevant. That sense of trust in the director’s and writers’ flexibility and creativity is impressive and admirable, especially in today’s movie culture, supersaturated with reboots and adaptations.
Now that we have exhausted our ability to compliment the film, let’s start off discussing the film’s issues by examining the main cast. Ellar Coltrane’s acting has been called by GQ and others a “breakout performance.” I call it uninspired and blasé. For a majority of the film, Coltrane speaks in the same somewhere-in-between-angsty-and-apathetic monotone. We see him confront young love, heartbreak, pedagogy, and youthful inspiration all with a vocal attitude that sounds like he just rolled out of bed. Honestly, he sounds most in-character during the first 45 minutes or so when he is still a shouty, whiny prepubescent. When was the last time that a teacher told off a teen for being a lazy piece of trash, or a girl told her boyfriend that she had been cheating on him with an older guy, and he reacted in both situations with the same indifference he would employ when responding to “Would you like fries with that?”
Let’s move on to Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, who plays the role of Samantha, Mason’s older sister. There must have been something contagious going around the studio, because as Samantha gets older, although the drama of life issues might progressively get more difficult and complex, Linklater’s performance also appears increasingly more lethargic and uninterested. Frankly, if the purpose of the movie is to get you to hate teenagers because of their disinterest in the world, I finally understand the film’s praise.
Another huge issue with Linklater’s character is the uncapitalized potential laced in her role. Sam is the classic better-than-you-at-life older sibling who is busy earning straight A’s, a perfect antagonist to Mason, whom teachers constantly rebuke for having his head in the clouds. Now, if one is going to make a film about “boyhood,” and that boy just so happens to have an older sibling, the sibling rivalry and relationship is going to have profound effects on how that boy grows up. At most, the film touches this concept peripherally. I guess by year six of filming, Papa Linklater finally figured out that his daughter’s role was made relatively ineffective to the general storyline, because Lorelei’s presence in the film gradually disappears to near irrelevance during the back end of the film (which is still a hefty 80 minutes).
Next on the cast list is Patricia Arquette, who won the Academy Award this year for Best Supporting Actress in her role as Mason’s and Samantha’s mother (only called “Mom” in the film). Finally, something positive to say about the cast, right? After all, it would be fair to assume that the actress who beat out Meryl Streep at the Oscars must have had a stellar performance. While this is a fair assumption, it is by no means correct. Arquette’s role has a relatively small impact in the grand scheme of things, as she seems to have more of an effect on the life of a plumber’s assistant than on the lives of her own children. Thus, it doesn't really make sense for her to win Best "Supporting" actress when she really occupies the space of a tertiary character. As for her performance, frankly, it is plain and unmemorable. I wish I could make a more complex critique about her acting, but it is relatively impossible considering that there is simply nothing there to talk about. The few intense sequences that Arquette does have are mainly of her yelling at her kids, or finding herself in a midlife crisis as she is about to be an empty-nester, but none of these scenes are particularly moving or captivating. A "Best Actress" should not just display the emotions of the character, but must convey those feelings to the audience: make them feel her rage, her joy, her despair. Arquette's doesn't even come close.
Finally, we arrive at Ethan Hawke’s character, Mason’s and Samantha’s father and their mother’s ex-husband (only called “Dad” in the film). Frankly, if anyone deserved an Oscar for his or her performance in this film, it would be Hawke, who utilizes his wit and charm to highlight his character’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s ironic that of all the characters in the film to develop and mature most over the course of the twelve years, it is not Mason but his father, who starts off as an unemployed, irresponsible estranged parent, and by the film’s close is a put-together, married family man. It’s almost a bit ridiculous that in one of the last scenes of the film, Hawke’s character says to Mason, “I think I probably turned into that boring guy your mother wanted me to be 15 [or] 20 years ago,” as if the movie recognizes that the film is more about Dad than about Mason. The title might as well have been “Fatherhood,” not “Boyhood.” (Unless you are a Pixar theorist, who will argue that the whole focus of the film was really not on Mason, but on Dad and his progression to maturity from his “boyhood.” But that’s just ridiculous.)
While the film effectively displays the maturation of Mason’s dad, it completely fails to do so with regards to Mason. A film that records twelve of the most crucial developmental years of a boy’s life should provide a tremendous sense of understanding of how the young adult at the film’s end acquired certain personality traits and life perspectives. Especially if the 6.3 million minutes of the story’s timeline are condensed into a relatively meager 165 minutes, with scenes that are expertly written, spliced, and constructed, so that the events of this boy’s life give the audience insight into the intricate process and progression of his intellectual and emotional persona. Well, by the end of the film, we see that Mason has developed a very cynical view on life. He states that people have become biological cyborgs that don’t live a life of experiences due to their addictions to their smartphones and social media (a point we will address more in a bit). He has a work ethic when it comes to his passion for photography, but that’s just about it; he’s pretty lazy otherwise. Where did all of this come from? Honestly, I have no clue. There is nothing in the film to explain what made Mason become such a cynic, nothing that indicates where his passion for photography came from, or why he is so committed to it when he isn’t interested in doing… anything else. The only aspect of Mason where the process of growth throughout the years is effectively displayed is the length and style of his hair. I kid you not, there were times where I would have remained clueless as to whether a new scene was during the same year as the previous scene had I not noticed that more of Mason’s face was hiding behind his blond mop than before.
My final issue with Boyhood is the most serious, but perhaps not as apparent as Patricia Arquette’s lack of acting. At one point in the film, Mason and his girlfriend Sheena are driving to visit Mason’s sister, who is in college, and Mason begins to rant about how people are too addicted to social media and have become more robot than human. He entertains the idea of closing his Facebook account while Sheena ironically checks her Facebook News Feed, and he says, “I just want to try and not live my life through a screen. I want some kind of actual interaction. You don’t care what your friends are up to on Saturday afternoon, but you’re also obviously not fully experiencing my profound bitching so…it’s like everyone’s just stuck in, like, an in-between state. Not really experiencing anything.” Very profound sounding, right? Ok, sure. But let’s take a step back for a second.
Why do people watch movies? I’m sure there are lots of legitimate reasons: They like to escape their lives to a fantasy or even a realistic but fictional situation; they want to exercise their imaginations and look for hidden meanings and analogies within the film; or maybe they want to learn something from a biopic or historical fiction. But here is the funny thing: Boyhood actually accomplishes none of these, and is meant to accomplish none of these. Boyhood is a condensed and edited summary of a fictional person who is meant to go through as realistic of a life as possible that can be artificially constructed in a studio. In essence, the film is meant to be a synopsis of twelve years of family home videos. So let me ask you a question: Why are we wasting 165 minutes of our lives sitting on our dorm beds, or at the theatre on 84th Street, watching a fictional person live life?! Would you spend three hours watching a film synopsis of the life of that random guy in history class you’ve never talked to? Then why do it for fictional Mason? And here’s the punchline: Mason himself tells you not to watch his own movie. Why are we living life, Mason’s life, through a screen? Why are we electing to “not really experience anything” for three hours as we gain nothing but the story of some made-up kid? Boyhood, aside from having very little merit to begin with, is a caricature of its own lesson, and one not worth waiting two plus hours to figure out.