It’s safe to say that there’s no film other film in 2014 that I was more predisposed toward liking before ever having seen in that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Anyone who follows my “byline” at any of the various sites I write for (please! Get something better to do with your time!) even occasionally will know that I’m a tremendous fan of the director’s other works — from his superb animated efforts such as A Scanner Darkly and Waking Life to his honest and heartfelt live-action films such as Bernie, School Of Rock, Fast Food Nation, Dazed And Confused, and his breakthrough hit, Slacker (which I just recently reviewed through decidedly rose-tinted nostalgic lenses), the guy just has the magic touch, in my opinion. Heck, even his Bad News Bears remake was kinda fun, if you ask me. And, of course, the three films in his hopefully-still-ongoing “Before” series aren’t just great movies, but flat-out events in my life when they come out. I love ’em to pieces and make no apologies for it. Jesse and Celine may not be real people, but they’re still my fucking friends, goddamnit.
And yet for one reason or another it seems Linklater always flies below the radar. Maybe it’s because his naturalistic, unforced style doesn’t command attention. He’s not one to overpower you with sentimentality or melodrama, and the almost nonchalant nature of his work trusts the audience to be smart enough to make up its own collective mind about the stories he’s bringing to the screen. I like that. I think we need more filmmakers who aren’t out to either manipulate our emotions or “wow” us with their technique. Linklater goes about his business with respect for his stories, his characters, and his viewership — and while that may not win him a ton of awards, it certainly earns him my respect.
All that’s changing now, though. After over two decades operating, for the most part, on the margins (not that he doesn’t have a devoted fan base, it’s just not a terribly large one, comparatively speaking), the finished result of his grand 12-year-epic centered on young actor Ellar Coltrane as he ages from 7 to 19, Boyhood (originally titled 12 Years but re-named at the last minute to avoid confusion with recent Academy Award best picture winner 12 Years A Slave) is finally here, and Linklater’s richly-deserved moment in the spotlight has finally arrived. He’s made it to the to the top of the mountain. He’s the talk of the town. The man of the hour. The toast of Hollywood.
And ya know what? He deserves to be. I’m just not so sure he deserves it for this particular film.
Don’t get me wrong — Boyhood is pretty good stuff in many respects. What Linklater’s pulled off here is certainly remarkable — getting essentially the same cast together year in and year out (the principle players being Coltrane as growing boy Mason, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his divorced-from-the-film’s-outset parents, and the writer/director’s own daughter, Lorelei, as older sister Samantha) to make a series of short films that would eventually be assembled into one “grand work” is ambitious and bold and frankly just plain tough to work out logistically. So my hat’s off to to him for even realizing a project of this scope and magnitude.
I just wish the finished product were anywhere near as powerful, affecting, and awe-inspiring as we’re being told it is by the paid dictators of consensus opinion out there. The exploration of aging and the different stages we go through on, to sound unbearably pompous for a moment, life’s journey aren’t even particularly new themes for Linklater to explore — as a matter of fact, it’s what the “Before” series is all about, and they tackle the subject much better than this flick does. So maybe the folks who make their living telling us all what to think are just making up for lost time by showering accolades all over Boyhood after largely ignoring last year’s Before Midnight. Or maybe they honestly just like this one better because their taste isn’t all that great, I dunno.
In any case, I’ve still got a few good things to say about this before I lay out my gripes, so let me say that Linklater is to be commended for the smooth, easy flow with which he transitions from one scene to the next, and for letting events in the story take their time and “breathe” a bit without resorting to strict formulas of, say, 15 minutes per year or somesuch. Each and every actor is also to be congratulated for their work here, as the performances are quite simply astonishing. Yeah, Coltrane is obviously the star of the show, and watching him grow up in front of our eyes is every bit the amazing experience everyone makes it out to be, but all the other major players turn in terrific work, as well, as do many of the minor ones (Marco Perella deserves special mention here for his role as Mason’s troubled — and troubling — stepfather-for-a-time). So kudos to everybody involved for some truly great work.
Here’s the rub, though (you knew it was coming) — the material they’ve got to work with just ain’t all that hot. Linklater has taken his non-manipulative approach (you know, the one I was just praising him for) to near-pathological extremes here and the end result is a film that feels almost clinically removed from its own subjects. Add in the disappointing fact that many of his characters are one-note ciphers — Mason’s mother gets an education and improves her economic and social standing over the years but still can’t help but marry one alcoholic loser after another, while his father laregely remains a go-nowhere “slacker” for ages (Hawke spends the first half of the film essentially playing Jesse Wallace) before undergoing an instant transformation and getting a new wife, new baby, new mustache, and, apparently, his shit together all at the same time — and what we wind up with is a movie that never transcends its origins as a cinematic experiment, as well as one that’s populated not by leaving, breathing people so much as specimens floating around in a celluloid petri dish.
I’m not foolish enough to think that unfairly-high expectations going in didn’t have something to do with why I left the theater feeling so flat after this one — shit, a 99% score on Rotten Tomatoes is flat-out unheard of — but even if this had been made by somebody I’d never heard of and landed on our screens out of nowhere, I’d still be less than awestruck by the finished product. I fully appreciate everything Linklater was trying to do here, sure, but what he’s ended up doing is completing what amounts to a 12-year-long sociological study that’s so concerned with preserving the integrity of its ground rules (don’t force anything, adhere to faux-documentary stylings at all costs, let things play out as absolutely naturally as you can possibly manage given you’re still working from a script, etc.) that it forgets it has an audience to win over. I admire Linklater for protecting his characters from directorial heavy-handedness, to be sure, but it’s a shame he wasn’t able to find a way to share their story that would have let us in while still keeping the melodrama and schmaltz out.
So yeah, Boyhood definitely came up short for this armchair critic, despite the fact that I was rooting for it as hard as anyone. Walling off your characters to prevent Lifetime-movie-of-the-week-style syrup from oozing into their protective membrane is one thing, but walling them off from from genuine viewer involvement results in a film that feels oddly disconnected, even divorced, from events that could be so much more effectively communicated if given even an ounce of immediacy. We want to care about Mason and his family beyond the level that Linklater allows us to , but he never lets us, or himself, get that close, and its for that reason that Boyhood will always remain much more interesting for what it does than for what it actually is. Maybe he’ll give us another installment in 2026 that corrects the mistakes he made here? Chuckle at the idea all you want, but no one saw a sequel to Before Sunrise coming, either.