Boyhood ★★

It is not surprising that so many people identify closely with Boyhood. It hits all the hallmarks of growing up. There is the promise made years ago that the parent forgot but the child did not. There is the incessant fighting between siblings that is forgotten two minutes later, as well as the faking of who is to blame for the fight when the shouts of "MOM!" have been acknowledged. There is the change in address, school and friends, for which parents are always blamed and children's protests are always ignored. There is the period where children discover that they can exert some control by dressing how they like or coming in late, anything that can be taken as a silent single-finger salute to the parents. So many moments with which we can all identify, but of course we expected as much given the title, didn't we?

Therein lies the major problem with the film. Boyhood is exactly that. It isn't a particular boyhood, it isn't even Mason's boyhood. It is Boyhood: The Concept and all of the checkmarks that go along with it. Just like one's daily horoscope, Boyhood is general enough for anyone to see some truth in it. It paid a hefty price for being all things to everyone. There's a scene where Ethan Hawke tells his kids to watch how its done as he throws a stone such that it skips along the surface of a lake. That is the film. Boyhood hops along the surface of growing up with unrelated consecutive scenes, all in a row, all in one direction, all fairly shallow. A long line of segments and by the end of it we are supposed to somehow know something about Mason. But we don't, do we? We've seen him grow up but we know absolutely nothing about him, nor do we care. He shows up for his segment, broods a bit, comes a year later a bit taller sporting a new hairstyle but still brooding and by the end he's brooding behind a Canon SLR delivering typical Linklater greeting-card philosophy.

The film works for the first 30 minutes or so, probably because we were all in awe of how the transitions from one year to the next were being handled. I half expected "one year later" title cards every few minutes, so I was quite happy with the way the transitions were being handled. The segments were probably as short as they were for the rest of the film, but they were still being used to introduce us to all the characters and establish a tone. Then the film slowly became a bit of a chore. At the best of times it is difficult to engage in a film when we don't care for the characters. There has to be a lot of something going on, action, thrills, suspense, something to counter not caring what happens to our protagonist. We are given none of that in Boyhood. Mason, a character we are never able to come to know, just keeps showing up in different settings where dialog and action is all established by everyone else in the scene. Here is an example. Because we are talking about a checklist-film here there is the bullying scene, or to be more precise (and more cliche) the "bullying in the bathroom" scene. Were we given any sense, at all, that Mason was being bullied at school - ever? No. The scene didn't make any sense whatsoever. That is how most of the scenes played out for me.

In fact the film might as well have been called Parenthood instead, because it seemed to be a lot more about the mother and father than Mason (or his sister). I'll be the first to congratulate Linklater for not always going with the more cliche moments (thank goodness he didn't include Mason throwing a hat during his graduation). The moments were all there (first kiss, first girlfriend, first break-up) but the scenes were on the edges of the cliches for the most part. Unfortunately there was nothing in the film to cement all the scenes.

Working on the edges like that was definitely beneficial, but we still needed something more to care for the character, to want to finish the film. I think maybe Linklater's method is what got him into trouble. When Winterbottom used the method he focused on a single event that happened every year: a family going to visit the father in prison. That was the glue. In Boyhood there is no glue. If we want to take Mason as the glue then we needed more of Mason in the film (yes, more). We need him to be the star of each scene. We need him to be doing the talking. We need to know how he was negotiating these moves and divorces and first kiss. We got very little of that. We had to rely on everyone else, and every one else were pretty on dimensional as well.

The major problem I had with the film was the way Mason's family was portrayed. At the beginning it was clear that his dad was going to be a "cotton-candy dad" as my husband calls it. The father who shows up every once in a while to do fun stuff with the kids. The father who avoids all responsibilities, doesn't have to discipline doesn't have to nag, doesn't have to reschedule things when the kids wake up late. He just shows up, takes them to the zoo and he's the grandest person alive. Fair enough. Many of us have had dads like that. Linklater goes much further than this though. In fact, he goes too far. He presents the father-son relationship as being the most essential, the most fundamental. Actually, it is worse than that It is pretty much the only relationship we see Mason have in the film. The scenes with Hawke were longer (or at least they felt longer), they were more important, and they were more interesting, including different settings, conversations, laughter and fun. And the mother? When she isn't in a car driving the kids around she's moving them to get away from an abusive alcoholic husband. I'm almost certain that Mason didn't have a single conversation with this mother. They certainly never had fun, no moments, no laughter, not like with the father. Linklater choose these scenes. All the bad stuff comes from home and all the good stuff comes from dad. When you consider that for a third of the film Mason only saw his dad once or twice every year, and only every second weekend throughout the rest, Linklater's choices are astounding. Are we really to believe that he never ever spoke with this mom? Never went out anywhere? Never had even a little bit of fun? What about Christmas mornings? Birthday parties and cake? (Oh yeah, they did include one birthday scene--it was with the father). When I became aware of what Linklater was doing (and saying) somewhere near the 60 minute mark it was extremely difficult to keep watching. And of course I nearly blew my top when father and son are at the club near the end and this conversation takes place:

Mason and his girlfriend broke up

Mason Sr.: it's all timing with these things. I mean, take your mom and me. I probably turned into the boring castrated guy she always wanted me to be 15-20 years ago. I mean I'm not saying she was wrong to be pissed, I'm not, I'm just saying that, you know, she could have been a little more patient, a little more forgiving.

Mason Jr.: it would have saved me that parade of drunken assholes

Mason Sr. glibly purses his lips and makes the "zipped" sign across them with this fingers while they both laugh.

The film contains at least three more swipes at the mother. And swipes against the father? Not a one.

I can't help but feel that many are being seduced by nostalgia when viewing this film. That's not a bad thing, and given how it is about a concept rather than a story, with its long (very long) string of generalizations, maybe Linklater meant it to be that way. I guess I prefer my films to be engaging, and that requires something that Boyhood didn't have: a story or a character or something for me to care about.

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