Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is six years old. Then he’s seven years old. A little later, he becomes eight years old, then nine, ten and eventually eleven years old. Soon, in a dramatic twist, he becomes twelve years old, then thirteen and, completely unexpectedly, fourteen years old. Some time later he grows to be fifteen, then sixteen. He spends a little time – around about a year – aged seventeen years old, before finally discovering he’s only gone and become an eighteen year old.
As I’m sat here writing this, the 2015 Academy Awards ceremony is mere hours away, and Boyhood is amongst the films expected to take a few statuettes home after the show, with a lot of contention occurring between it and the other seven-letter-title-starting-with “B”, Birdman, for the likes of Best Original Screenplay, Director and Picture. Other awards seem to be a given – it’s assumed that Boyhood will take the Best Supporting Actress award for Patricia Arquette (more on this later), whilst I’ll be very surprised if anything beats Birdman for Best Cinematography, but for those other three it seems to be almost a coin toss. Personally I’d like to see Birdman sweep them all, but I’ve got a sneaking suspicion that Boyhood might be in with a shot for Best Picture, and this saddens me.
It’s no secret that I’m not a fan of director Richard Linklater. He’s so far made sixteen films, of which I’ve seen twelve, and would recommend two: School of Rock and A Scanner Darkly. Maybe Tape, and Dazed and Confused at a stretch (I’ll admit I need to re-watch that one), but I’ll vehemently steer you away from such otherwise highly regarded fare as Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Slacker and for the love of all that makes sense don’t go anywhere near Waking Life. So I didn’t exactly have high expectations for Boyhood. In fact. I didn’t even really want to see it, but it’s up for a lot of awards, was available for rent when there wasn’t anything else I particularly fancied watching, and if I know the makers of the 1001 Movies book it’ll almost certainly be added there come October, especially if it wins Best Picture tonight. So I watched it, and made a valiant attempt not to outright hate it, and I didn’t, I just didn’t love it quite as much as everyone seemed to on the initial release.
The general criticisms I’ve heard about Boyhood are ones I’m going to try to avoid, such as it doesn’t really have a plot (true, it’s more like an extended character study, following a family – primarily the son – as he grows up over twelve years) and it’s more an exercise in nostalgia than a structured narrative (also true, with life stages being marked via technology – GameBoy! 20 Questions! Snake-board! Wii! – and music that was current at the time, with the camera sometimes holding for a few beats too long to make sure you pay attention to whatever device Mason Jr. is playing with). No, I didn’t really have any problems with the film, in fact I think it’s quite well made, and was exactly what Linklater and everyone else involved wanted to make. If you like it, hurrah for you, and I’m sure fans of the Before trilogy will love this, but as with those films I just didn’t connect to what I was being shown on screen, and I found myself often bored by what was before me.
Throughout the film, Mason Jr. begins to develop an affinity for art, particularly photography. He shows promise, but lacks the dedication and drive to get the right grades from his teachers, one of whom tells him “Any dipshit can take pictures, what extra do you bring to it?” This got me thinking that I think a lot of directors could have spent a few weeks every year crafting their own Boyhood, and that this particular one shows a lot of Richard Linklater flourishes that I didn’t particularly care for. Extraneous characters like the kid the young boys ask to tell them a joke early in the film, only for him to respond with a stream of expletives, or the guy talking to himself in the diner about the Hoover Dam deaths were straight out of the worst parts of Slacker, and the long walk-and-talk between Mason Jr. and a girl discussing the Twilight books and their mothers’ jobs nearly sent me to sleep recalling the Before movies. Also, the fact that the film isn’t about a specific plot, more a meandering look at a kid’s life is very Linklater, in that, as with most of his films, there’s no real end, and it could conceivably just keep going forever with no real purpose.
There were a few scenes where I deeply wished this had been put into the hands of a Fincher or a Tarantino, or heck even a Spielberg. Take the scene where, aged around fourteen, Mason Jr. and his buddies are hanging out in an abandoned, almost-finished house with a couple of older kids. They’re dicking around breaking planks of wood and throwing circular saw blades at some drywall. Mason throws the blade, and it wedges into the wall at around head height. Another kid, one of Mason’s friends of around his age, is mocked by the older kids, but is then instructed to hold a plank for the older kid to kick and break in half. The kid stands directly in front of the saw blade, mere inches behind his head, as the older kid goes to kick the board. I tensed up, awaiting the kick to send this youngster flailing backwards and for his young life to be cut short by a sudden serrated blade becoming embedded in the back of his head. This doesn’t happen. The kick takes place, the board breaks, and life moves on, and I’m left with this oddly empty feeling inside that I was just cheated from a gruesome yet emotionally wrenching scene in which our hero unwittingly was party to the death of a fellow child. This could have added some kind of drive to the film, some kind of drama, but no. It’s just a scene that happened, like all the rest. What was truly great about that scene, and one of the few aspects of the film that I related to (Mason Jr.’s upbringing is very, very American, in that for his fifteenth birthday he’s given a suit, a bible and a shotgun, and I didn’t necessarily have the most traditional childhood anyway) was the way he and the other lads talked to one another, in that for the most part it’s almost nothing but insults and false bravado. In my experience that was completely true aged fourteen, and hasn’t changed a great deal now I’m in my mid-to-late 20’s.
OK, the performances. First off, Ellar Coltrane.He’s fine. Nothing amazing but, seeing as he was cast as a 6 year old who happened to look a little bit like Ethan Hawke, they didn’t exactly mess it up with a guy who’d brign the whole film down around him. Fortunately the film doesn’t hang on his performance, and the scenes where he feels a little stilted and awkward are fine. because that’s how kids are supposed to be. I do feel sorry that he may have been picked on in real life when he told his friends every year that he couldn’t meet up that weekend because he was shooting a movie, but that movie never seemed to come out, so his friends probably called him a liar. Also, for the most part I had no problem with his character – I approve of the film not following the stereotypical sports jock character instead focusing on a more alternative, creative type, but as soon as he appeared with a flesh tunnel ear-ring near the end of the movie I just hated him. That’s all it took. Anyway. Mason Jr.’s sister Sam is played by Richard Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater, who is also OK, benefiting from having a little less to do than Coltrane. I grew up with a slightly older sister who was, and is, better at everything I ever tried to do, so I felt his pain. Fortunately she has so far shown no interest in discussing films, baking or mechanical engineering, so those three aspects of my life are safe… for now. Lorelei probably does a better job than Coltrane actually, growing from a pesky nuisance to a confidante and accomplice. The sibling relationship is one of the best aspects of the film. Ethan Hawke plays Mason Sr., the father to Sam and Mason Jr. (duh). Considering my thoughts on Linklater’s other films, it’s no surprise to learn I’m not Hawke’s biggest fan either, and here he does nothing to dissuade me from this opinion, and I’m utterly confused as to how he’s been nominated for Best Supporting Actor, given that in this film he does a pretty good job at playing a generic Ethan Hawke near-character. I can understand how Patricia Arquette was nominated for Best Supportign Actress as the children’s mother, as she has a lot to do over the course of the film, but I can’t quite comprehend how she is such a certainty to win the award, and why she has won pretty much every award she’s been nominated for. Granted, it hasn’t exactly been the strongest year for supporting actress performances (what year has?) but I think she was just as good as Emma Stone in Birdman (I’ve not yet seen other nominees The Imitation Game, Wild or Into the Woods), Tilda Swinton in Snowpiercer or the many unrecognised performances in Gone Girl, from the likes of Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens or Missi Pyle. Arquette is fine, but in a stronger year I don’t think she’d be anywhere near a sure thing.
I feel at a genuine loss as to whether to award this a Choose Film or a Choose Life rating. Choose Film indicates that I’d recommend it to others, whereas Choose Life designates it as being a waste of your time, when in reality it falls somewhere in between. Perhaps I should make up a new category, recommending you visit eastern Scotland by saying Choose Fife. No, that would be cheating, and this isn’t a site for fence-sitting, because it gets uncomfortable pretty damn fast. I’m going to say Choose Film, because at heart this was a good film, which is well made and which I didn’t hate. I also didn’t hate watching it, and I took some things away from it, I’ve just got no intention of ever watching through it again. Is it worthy of the Best Picture award tonight? No, I don’t think so. On a recent Lambcast episode I described Boyhood as this year’s Avatar, which is a description I stand by. By this I mean it’s this years “big” movie, the one that’s been the most talked about. Think Gravity last year, one of those event films that had everyone talking, mostly in favour of, but which in the end didn’t take home a lot of the bigger awards, losing out instead to better dramas in the cases of The Hurt Locker and 12 Years A Slave. I hope that’s the case this year, with the award eventually going to Birdman, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Choose Film 7/10