Saturday, 7 February 2015

Boyhood

Shot with the same cast over 12 years, from 2002 to 2013, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious and riskiest movie projects ever attempted. And the risks seem to have paid off – the film’s picked up three Golden Globes including Best Motion Picture (Drama) and Best Director, and it now has a whopping six pending Oscar nominations including Best Picture and Best Director. But are “ambitious” and “risky” the same as “good”, or is Boyhood just another piece of ostentatious Oscar bait?


Out now on DVD and Blu-ray, the film tells the story of six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and, to a lesser extent, his sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei). Mason and Samantha come from a fairly happy, ordinary family, albeit a broken one; their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette, whom I love) and father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) are divorced – Olivia is more or less raising the kids on her own, while Mason Sr. gets to be their cool, goofy dad on weekends.


From this basic set-up, we basically get to see how a decade of the family’s life plays out. Olivia has a couple of relationships with complete douchebags, including an abusive, alcoholic psychopath who has Mason’s head shaved without his consent (or Olivia’s knowledge), while his biological son escapes with his hair fully intact. The kids see friends and step-families come and go, and Mason has his first brushes with bullying, drink, drugs, and sex – eventually evolving into a monosyllabic, teenaged photographer with floppy hair and flesh tunnels. Later, Mason Sr. marries into a conservative, Christian family and finally settles down, while Olivia sells her plush home due to money concerns and Mason and Samantha leave to go to college.

If that all sounds a bit pedestrian, it’s because it is. Boyhood doesn’t really have a story, as such: I suppose it’s supposed to be about the “experience” of sharing a slice of the characters’ lives, and watching them grow and develop in front of you like so many Sea Monkeys, but that didn’t really work for me. Mason, and Mason’s family, and Mason’s life, just aren’t remarkable enough to sustain a feature-length film – particularly a three-hour one that limps half-heartedly from one plot point to the next, before withering and dying at the end. I know real-life people who’ve had far more interesting upbringings than Mason, which raises the question, if you’re going to spend twelve years of your life making a film… why not make one about someone interesting?

Even worse, what little storytelling the film does attempt is way too heavy handed. The first half of the movie hammers out “firsts”, one after the other – “first girlfriend”, “first time smoking weed”, “first job”, etc., etc., stopping only to wave books, mobile phones, and games consoles in front of you in a gaudy and unnecessary display of “LOOK, TIME IS PASSING!!!” – while the second half tacks on a preachy moral about how evil social networking is. And the few interesting things that actually do happen in the movie – the domestic abuse stuff, for example – are almost laughably throwaway. No one dwells on anything or deals with their problems in Boyhood. A bad thing happens and then, before you know it, you’ve been launched months into the future where the bad thing has been neatly resolved and the characters are fully recovered.

The film is well put together, though, in an understated sort of way. Nothing about it really made me go “wow”: everything from the acting, to the cinematography, to the characters’ ageing, was pleasingly muted and realistic, rather than showy and Hollywoodian. All the actors, including the child actors, played their roles perfectly, and the chemistry between the characters was dead on, every time. I was absolutely able to lose myself in the film; it felt intimate, like I was getting to know a real family and watching their life unfold.


What I’m trying to say is, I can completely understand and appreciate Boyhood as a piece of art. I’m more than happy to geek out over the fact it was filmed over such a long period of time, with the same cast – and considering the myriad of potential pitfalls that Richard Linklater has managed to avoid, it’s impressive it even holds together as a coherent story. But there’s nothing about it that makes me care, or makes me want to watch it again, ever, and that’s really disappointing.

I’m giving it 3/5 just for its cool, mostly well-realised concept, but Boyhood certainly won’t be scoring any points for storytelling anytime soon.

★★★☆☆

Mike Lee


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