‘Boyhood’: A review

Richard Linklater’s recent film ‘Boyhood’ reveals the fundamental aesthetic problem that every filmmaker must face: balancing the creative cinematographic concept with the essential narrative nature of the medium. The film does not do that balancing too well.

The film’s entire creative merit – what the critics have all be raving about – is on the former, that novel idea of filming the cast in real time, as they all actually live the twelve years in which the movie is set. It’s ingenious of course, but it’s not strictly novel – many documentaries have covered subjects in much longer spans of time. Looking at it from that perceptive somehow diminishes ‘Boyhood’ from that ‘landmark film’ status to just ‘hey, it’s a fictionalized documentary!’

(documentary voice): Observe how this specimen of Ethan Hawke does not seem to show signs of aging…

But whether or not that novelty is indeed a ‘landmark concept,’ its creative impact does nothing to remedy its biggest shortcoming: it has invested too much creatively on that concept, neglecting the development of its plot. Halfway into the almost three hour film, you can’t help but wonder where it’s all going. And sure enough, the ‘twelve year epic’ (not my epithet mind you) ends in the most un-epic manner: Mason Jr and this random girl he just meets blurt out the film’s theme. ‘I don’t think you seize the moment, I think the moment seizes you.’ ‘Yeah, I feel like… it’s always now.’ Wow, insight.

‘We waited twelve years to say these lines…’

That ending is such a let downer because the one true narrative strength of this film is the subtlety it achieves at some of the characters’ high dramatic points. The seething hatred a young Mason Jr has over his first stepfather as his hair is being cut against his will, the insecurity Olivia’s second husband suffers as he sees how little control he has over his wife’s family, that quiet vindication Mason Sr. gets to show over Olivia during their son’s graduation party. These human climactic moments are far more powerful than any of the hysterics Olivia engages in to spell out a theme.

‘You know what’s next!? Meryl Streep winning a f*cking Oscar over me!’

Which is not to say Olivia was a failure as a character. Far from it, she was the most developed, being the  most developed she just had too much going on. Yes, yes ‘a generation’s hopes and struggles, presented by an actress with a fullness of emotion, and yet with utter matter-of-factness.’ No need for a review to spell that out, the film makes it obvious enough. Where she just cuts through human reality deepest is when she shows the defeat of someone who had thought she was looking at a bright future ahead of her. That moment when her children’s father, whom she left because she thought him too unstable for a family, just tries to give her money, and when he leaves she casts her look down in utter dejection – dramatic gold.

But the most eye opening moment of the whole film, and the one that struck me most, was when that Latino man approached her in the restaurant, thanking her for telling him many years ago to study and make more out of his life. A heartwarming moment you might think, but the spent Olivia, who has exhausted her life and found nothing at the bottom, could only pity herself at the contrast between her sad, defeated denouement and this man’s dramatic rise. Ouch.

Narratives are best when they highlight high points like these in the lives of its characters. High drama presents intensity along with a plethora of insights, compelling the viewer to think, not just offering them something to think about. This is why I’m not very fond of these modernist-realist stuff: they’re boring, and their excuses of ‘subtlety’ and ‘profundity’ don’t work once you realize they’re not saying much at all. The most accomplished subtlety is when it is hiding intensity, and the most profound of insights emerge from the most critical, the most dramatic, of moments. When a high dramatist (pardon the coinage) is guilty of too much hysterics at least he won’t be found wanting in emotional gravitas of material, the modernist-realist will be at once guilty of being boring and of making much out of the trivial.

Hair is blown by the wind, forming natural emo bangs – profound

Observe that, save for Mason Jr’s haircut moment, I only mention the adults. The lives of the young ones (the boys-to-men moments with those cool guys breaking planks, and all the partying and love-sexing) just make my eyes roll. I’d rather watch David Attenborough talk about the reproductive cycle of flowers.  All I can say is that girlfriend of Mason’s, Sheena, she’s pretty and she’s a good actress, and I hope to see more of her.

Are you listening Game of Thrones/Downton Abbey people?

Of course it isn’t the film’s creative concern anymore, but I also fear this will further add to the increasingly insular worldview America is cultivating, and the increasing America-centrism that causes to the rest of the world. Of course, as this painstakingly vivid and accurate portrayal of American realities it makes for an outstanding piece of historiography (Dan Chiasson puts it better than me). But if only that is how all of us will see it – as an accurate depiction of specifically American realities. When Joyce Carol Oates, referring to ‘Boyhood,’ tweeted how:

‘it is rare that a film so mimics the rhythms and texture of actual life as Boyhood. Such seeming spontaneity is a very high art,’

she betrays that tendency to think that American realities are universal realities. Sure, some may be real human struggles anybody from any culture can relate to, but how trivial it must be for the displaced Badjao in Zamboanga to hear Olivia complaining about the high cost of her house. And how perfectly at leisure these characters seem to let ‘the moment seize them’ for the innocent civilians in war-torn Syria, who may be literally seized by the moment, never to be returned.

The world is full of horrible, wonderful, unbelievable – amazing – stuff, and we’re calling a movie about an American boy growing up in middle America ‘high art.’

Film this kid as he rises from this, to a rebel leader, to a national hero, to becoming the President of Syria before winning the Nobel. In Economics. Now that would be a twelve year epic.

Yes, it’s a great film that says (albeit too obviously) a profound reality to many of us, but let’s not lionize it too much.


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