Boyhood is a film that favours form over narrative. It certainly has some artistic value - it's an impressive technical achievement - and its various award nominations and wins are understandable. But that doesn't necessarily make for an enjoyable film.
Spanning twelve years of filming, Boyhood is a realistically portrayed coming of age movie. It's initially compelling, profound even, as we watch protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up before our eyes in various cities across Texas. We feel an instant connection to the young boy and immediately drawn into his story, even if just for apparent voyeuristic reasons. There's also a huge amount of nostalgia - both for our own childhood and for the changing tastes in fashion and music. Through the subject matter alone, we feel a connection to the plot that feels totally moving.
It's a film that makes drama out of the mundane. Nothing out of the ordinary happens; indeed this is a film that celebrates the ordinary. Yet ordinary is not inherently dramatic. The film consists of a series of tiny dramas that make up the fabric of our lives, but why should we sit through it for an overlong two and a half hours?
One issue is that Mason himself is mundanity personified. That's clearly a purposeful decision so that we identify with him - he is merely an avatar for our own feelings. But why should we be invested in him? He is just a morose, quiet boy who has limited interests beyond video games and feeling sorry for himself, whilst Coltrane is not the best of actors. Though cute at first, as he grows up it becomes clear that he's just not that interesting a character and, by the end, the film descends to a dull teenage melodrama. Linklater's central conceit quickly runs out of steam.
Somehow the story remains compelling and that's due to the lives of those around him. As his mother, Patricia Arquette is a self-destructing woman with terrible taste in a string of alcoholic husbands, but we never quite understand why. Ethan Hawke plays his father who we witness turn from playboy to responsible husband. And Linklater's own daughter plays Mason's annoying and moody sister.
There are plenty of other characters along the way, but they're picked up, dropped and forgotten about with little fanfare. This is perhaps to represent how people flit in and out of our lives, but it's telling that Linklater began the film with only a skeletal script that he developed over the twelve years. The narrative has no backbone, no structure and little satisfaction. Instead it simply meanders without knowing where to go or what to say. If you fail to plan, you're planning to fail.
The film's major issue is that it's so ambitious it spreads itself thematically thin. Even Mason himself asks towards the end of the film during one of its many possible endings, "what does it all mean?". Linklater touches on a number of themes but never fully explores them, from the culture of post-9/11 America, to the breakdown of the nuclear family, the difficulties of single parents combining families and the bond between mother and son. Mostly, it's a film that examines men, questioning traditional values of masculinity, the widening gap between generations of men and the need for a suitable father figure.
Equally, despite its wide scope, it's an incredibly narrow-minded film. There is a distinct lack of diversity, instead focusing on a limited view of white middle America. There is not one black character or gay character. Is this really representative of America and the experience of all men? Or is this another loose commentary on the prejudice inherent in American life?
Perhaps the film's message is most conveyed in one nauseatingly self-congratulatory scene where Mason speaks to his photography teacher in the dark room and explains how he doesn't just want to take photos, he wants to make art. CLUNK. The parallels to Linklater are about as subtle as a falling piano. He's certainly made something and its impressive scale is unparalleled, but is it art?
The film does eventually come to a close, but amongst all its questions the most important of all remains unanswered: why, over twelve years, could they not have given the poor boy a decent haircut?
Watch: Boyhood was released last year, with home release coming soon.
Ticket courtesy of Backyard Cinema as part of their Award Season series that offers an immersive cinematic experience, with red carpet and Hollywood themed cocktails. BYC screenings take place across London with a variety of themes, with plenty more planned for the future!