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"Boyhood" Review

Let's get something out of the way immediately: Richard Linklater's Boyhood (or 12 Year A Movie as I'm gonna call it) is an amazing achievement in filmmaking. Shot in drips and drabs over 12 years from May 2002 through August 2013 with the core cast of Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater (his daughter) and Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the titular boy, returning every year or two to shoot for a few days, it's release prompted jaw-dropped astonishment over how it was made. Linklater made eight other films during this stretch including School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Midnight and Bernie and Hawke and Arquette had kept busy with their careers, so the fact no one seemed to know this project was ongoing takes the concept of flying under the radar to new lows.

That said, though, Boyhood is simply not a very good movie and I find the universal acclaim and potential it could win a Best Picture Oscar in a couple of day baffling, but then I realize that everyone is grading on a curve that resembles a small sphere because of the way the movie was made. Simply put, it's the trick that's impressing everyone. However, if you take away the making-of story - imagining it was shot in 45 consecutive days with three separate actors playing the kids and hair and makeup aging the parents - and just look at the story told and it's clear that Boyhood has very little under its shallow surface and people are mistaking the trick for substance.

It reminds me of the drooling acclaim for The Kids Are All Right - the 2010 film involving an older lesbian couple - which was praised for it's "bold and progressive portrayal of a modern family" but if you stripped out the gimmick and imagined the leads as a straight man-woman couple, it became clear that they were boring people with a boring story to tell. If your movie's story can't stand without a gimmick, it's not a good movie. Period.

Problem number one with Boyhood is that the way it was made required an ad hoc approach to the script - it didn't really have one as Linklater would make up the next sequence based on where Coltrane was at - and the limitation of his lead. For most of the movie, it could've been called Mommy Has Terrible Man-Picking Skills because the "plot" frequently involves her meeting some guy who seems nice, but in the next sequence after they've married is revealed to be a drunk a-hole, physically and mentally abusing, leading to the family moving and being alone until she rinses and repeats the cycle. Hawke's absent father figure drops in sporadically to show what arrested development looks like until he's tamed and driving a minivan with a new wife and baby.

Throughout a long 2-3/4 hours (which goes down easier if you break it over two nights viewing and frequent pauses to do something constructive with one's time) Mason simply is a prop being dragged from one lousy situation to another with no agency until he's a teenager and able to hang with classmates, smoking weed, getting drunk, and generally being a blank slate of unmotivated slackerdom until he's magically an artistic photographer, he goes to college and takes drugs with the cute friend of his new roommate's girlfriend. Deep. Not.

Here's where I think the people suckered by Boyhood are fooling themselves about beyond what the production backstory provides: Because we see Coltrane age from 7 to 19-years-old, they've convinced themselves that they're watching a documentary as if the cheesy and trite Lifetime abused divorcee stories aren't happening. But it's not a documentary, it's a fictional movie where the actions of its characters are dictated by Linklater. It's not "a meditation on aging and childhood" as I've seen some contend because despite its length there's remarkably little story or character development other than Arquette's mother who actually evolves as a person despite making terrible choices for reasons we can't fathom.

There's a scene near the end where someone she encouraged to go to school encounters her and thanks her for the advice because his life improved, but there is no equivalent from her own children. There's a line from Hawke about she did a good job raising Mason, but we've never seen any evidence for anything she (or he) contributed to their development because we dip in on these people with years of assumed events happening off-screen. It's like we get to watch them do the most boring things because the cameras weren't around for the interesting stuff. One scene has Hawke giving Mason Jr. a mix CD set of solo Beatles tunes; a scripted movie would either have the son react with appreciation because he loves the Beatles or resentment that the old man is shoving his old people music on him. But Mason just sort of takes it with the same disconnected manner he has for almost all situations whether it's a stepfather smashing a glass next to him or a boss yelling at him slacking or a teacher yelling at him for slacking or his parents chiding him for slacking. (I'm sensing a theme here.)

While Hawke and Arquette have snagged Supporting Oscar nods (she's favored to win; he doesn't have a prayer against J.K. Simmons and really doesn't belong here) there's been little acclaim for Coltrane's performance because he's inconsistent at times and frankly adrift without anything to play. There are so many scenes which could've given him something to do - push back at Mom's latest abuser; express some actual angst about his life; anything - but Linklater just has him stand there. I have no idea if the kid can act because most of the movie is him standing there while the grownups emote their drama around him.

A fundamental rule of screenwriting is that no scene should be retained that doesn't advance the story or characters, but Linklater spends so much time on scenes that do neither. If you trimmed the inconsequential material down I suspect the movie would've run 80-90 minutes and that's much too short for a Really Important Cinematic Statement. Bullsh*t! He was hamstrung by the production gimmick in that he was always stuck with whatever he did in prior years. Movies frequently go back and reshoot bits for clarity and amplification of details, but you can't do it when your lead doesn't look anything like he did five years ago. (The change in voice and physique is so dramatic in a couple of spots that it's as if the role had been recast.)

So we get multiple musical performances by Hawke. We get repeated digressions to rub Hawke and Linklater's unbridled hatred for George W. Bush as Hawke's first scenes include telling the kids (who are a decade away from voting) to vote for "anyone but Bush," a later scene having the kids putting out Obama signs (and stealing a McCain sign), and a veteran talking about serving in Iraq, summing up that the locals thought we were there for the oil. What does any of this have to do with the story of Mason? A: Nothing, but that's what Linklater felt was the Most Important Thing to shoot that year and now it plays like a diary of a Democrats political obsession jammed into a supposed tale of a boy's maturation. (It's like how Judd Apatow has made a habit of larding on unneeded reels of movie showcasing his wife and kids. Leslie Mann is wonderful, but it's not relevant to the plot, Judd.)

While it's appropriate to admire the tenacity needed to make Boyhood - kudos to IFC for basically handed Linklater $200K per year in the hopes of getting something a decade later (the cast couldn't even been signed to contracts because it would've been illegal) - the inconvenient truth is that the sum is barely the sum of a few of its parts. It's too long and too meaningless and ultimately unworthy of the praise it's garnered. People need to get a grip.

Score: 4/10. Skip it.

ICYMI, my girlfriend Hermione's review is here.


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