Since it began showing at film festivals at the start of the year, the reaction to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has generally been ecstatic. It currently has a rare 100% rating from over 100 reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, with reviewers heralding it as a unique and bold film that can instantly be called a classic. So it’s fair to say that I went to see it with fairly high expectations, particularly as I have only recently watched, and loved, Linklater’s Before series for the first time.
So it was a surprise to me that I really didn’t connect with the film at all, despite some strong performances from its cast, particularly Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr, whose boyhood lends the film its title. It goes without saying that the biggest risk for the project as a whole was getting that piece of casting wrong, because the project would probably have collapsed had his ability to perform on camera disappeared when he became a teenager. It’s certainly a highlight of the film that his performance feels natural and unforced at every age, whether he’s asking his father (Ethan Hawke) if ‘real magic’ exists in the world as a young boy or he’s ranting to his girlfriend as a teenager about why he’s deleting his Facebook page. Lorelei Linklater plays his sister Samantha and her performance is strong too, with a scene when she’s having an awkward conversation about sex with Hawke at a bowling alley a highlight.
The problem for me lies not in the performances, but with the development of the characters and the changes they go through, and how they are presented to the audience. I didn’t get the sense that I was really seeing the world through Mason’s eyes, and as a result, the relationships his parents have and the changes they go through felt under-written and a little contrived. Patricia Arquette’s Olivia has two long-term relationships that end when his drinking becomes a problem, but because those two men don’t have much screen time, the changes in their characters are hard to accept, because we don’t really get to see what triggered their personality changes (both of which revolve around drinking problems). In the case of Hawke’s Mason Sr., we first meet him as a man who hasn’t embraced the responsibility of being a father at all, and still talks about making music and lives in a shitty apartment, but a few years later he’s married with a baby, and this is presented to the audience without an explanation of why or how his life changed in that period of time that made him settle down.
In the Before series, we meet up with Jesse and Céline at different periods in their lives (the films were released in 1995, 2004 and 2013), and can see how they’ve physically changed, but the characters talk about what they’ve done in the time since we’ve seen them, and you get an understanding of why they’ve made certain decisions and what their current motivations are. In Boyhood, these kind of conversations are largely absent, and characters simply disappear from the film when their year(s) is over with. It makes the film feel fractured and didn’t allow me to really get invested in most of the relationships throughout.
In terms of seeing the world through Mason’s eyes, I would compare Boyhood with Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. While that film is much more abstract and meditative than Boyhood, I think Malick does a better job of capturing the world through the eyes of a child (particularly through Hunter McCracken’s Jack) than Linklater does in this film. To me, it often felt like Mason was on the outside looking in at the relationships his parents were experiencing, rather than being in the middle of them. What Jack goes through in The Tree of Life is much more successful, and you get a real sense of him learning from his father while also fearing him, as well as discovering the world in the way children do, when everything is fresh. So I couldn’t see how Mason was changing or learning in the same way and how those relationships would shape his life as he grew up.
Ultimately, I think Boyhood is an ambitious film that comes up short in a couple of key areas, and as a result, it didn’t have the kind of impact on me that it seems to have had with almost everyone else. I still think Richard Linklater should be applauded for taking the plunge on this kind of project, and I hope its success and acclaim from elsewhere can inspire more people to make independent films, but for me, it’s a noble failure.