Year of Release: 2014 Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Libby Villari.
It is inevitable for any critic that a highly acclaimed film will come along, and that critic will be surprised to discover how much he does not care for the film in question, and he will also be surprised others are so enthusiastic about said film. For me, one of those films is Boyhood. I liked parts of it – mostly the parts when Mason (Ellar Coltrane) was a child; but as a whole the film failed to engage me, and I never cared about any of the characters.
Naturally, I am surprised at my lack of enthusiasm for Boyhood, partially because many of my friends and the critics with whom I normally agree all loved it, but also because I normally like films that are quiet snapshots in time. I suppose there are two disclaimers I should make: 1) I have never liked a Linklater film other than the Celine/Jesse Before trilogy, and 2) with a few exceptions I’m generally not a fan of coming of age stories. I was really hoping this film would break both those trends, but unfortunately it did not.
My biggest complaint was Mason; while he was empathetic as a kid, once he got older he turned into the dullest, most generic, unsympathetic protagonist I can think of. He makes no decisions, lets everything bounce off him as if he doesn’t care, never gets really angry, never is enthusiastic for anything. Every other character would have made a more interesting subject for a movie than Mason: his sometimes pesky sister (Lorelei Linklater), his irresponsible father (Ethan Hawke), his stressed single mother (Patricia Arquette), his abusive alcoholic stepfather, his supportive stepsiblings, his very religious gun-toting step-grandparents, etc. Somehow in the midst of all those scenarios, Mason manages not to care about anything or anyone, mopes around about nothing in particular, and for some reason we’re supposed to sympathize with him because he’s the main character and he suffers a lot of hardships, many of which are his own damn fault. When his second stepfather chewed him out without getting aggressive or violent concerning Mason’s irresponsible behavior, that perfectly summarized Mason’s problems as well as the film’s problems. As a teenager, Mason becomes so dull that he makes Michael Palin’s chartered accountant look riveting in comparison.
I understand that many people are loving Boyhood specifically for its temporal jumps and brief snippets over a period of time. I often love those types of films myself, but with Boyhood Mason’s passive, indecisive nature made the film meander for a really, really long time. Robert Bresson (a director whose films I love) often employs elliptical editing that meanders through a character’s life, but his protagonists are always fascinating characters who make choices that affect their lives. I’m trying to think of any film I like with a passive protagonist who cares about nothing. The best examples I can think of are The Man Who Wasn’t There and Inside Llewyn Davis, both of which I love, but even those films have protagonists who make decisions, albeit lousy ones. Hamlet is famously a tragedy of a character who refuses to make a decision, but the play is driven by his inner conflict and fear of making the wrong choice. Mason has no conflict whatsoever, and consequently there is nothing to drive the film.
Boyhood is certainly ambitious, landmark filmmaking, and it has a lot of interesting vignettes, but it doesn’t add up to anything particularly worthwhile, at least not for my tastes.
Content Advisory: Occasional rough language, domestic violence, an implied sexual encounter between teens, and depiction of substance abuse by teens. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults
Personal Recommendation: C