Movies often yield similar experiences. Films are structured with rigid rules that must be adhered to in order for the audience to follow along. There are three carefully engineered acts. An inciting incident has to appear at a certain point to propel the narrative forward, and there is a specific time in which the climax must occur. Films are the product of building. There is a structure with many layers applied to conceal the concrete and steel skeleton that holds it all together. Pieces of the canvas stretch over frames of wood and are painted with colors and textures. Music, production design and cinematography culminate in something that qualifies as aesthetics instead of architecture.
Every so often a movie comes out that defies the traditional structure and ends up with something indefinable. Audiences expect a traditional apartment building and instead wind up in front of Gaudi’s House of Bones. Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is all paint and canvas. The frame has been abandoned in favor of a more free-form style. This is nothing new.
Linklater’s “Slacker” was one of the films that launched the independent film movement of the ‘90s. In “Boyhood” he tries something adventurous and chronicles the story of a boy as he makes his way into adulthood. It’s been filmed over 12 years with the same actors: It’s an experiment in form and function and an extremely interesting one. It’s the first time in ages where an independent film feels challenging and deserving of attention.
One can’t deny the strange, visceral thrills of watching this boy grow into a man over the course of two-and-a-half hours. Its unconventionality absolutely deserves praise. Linklater tries to tell a small story by abandoning the basic structure of cinematic storytelling in favor of highlighting mood and feeling. The film is a time capsule for both the eras it captures and independent cinema. It allows audiences to watch the filmmaker at various stages in his career, even as he moves from film to digital.
There isn’t so much a story to the film as a loose connection of scenes that detail the difficulties of the broken home that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) inhabits. His mother attempts to better herself and deal with life as a single mom. “Boyhood” delves into the boyfriends he must endure as his mother moves from relationship to relationship. It also paints the super-cool father who isn’t around nearly enough. It compels through his yearnings to find a medium of expression and companionship.
There are some fundamental issues I had with “Boyhood,” which has been hailed as a critical darling. The wild praise for this film comes from its intriguing design and abandonment of traditional filmmaking techniques. Though Linklater delivers an interesting film, it suffers from a lot of the trappings of low-budget films.
Some of the acting is wooden, especially as the younger child actors transition into adulthood. I refer to it as the “Macaulay Culkin Syndrome.” Sometimes child actors go from cute kids to satisfactory adult performers. Other times they hit puberty and all that cuteness oozes out their pubescent pores and they become stiff, emotionless adults. “Boyhood” has a lot of adorable kids that become less interesting with every passing year. Coltrane is perfectly adequate as Mason, the central subject of this story. But, much like the film’s freestyle production, he lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. His performance comes flanked by solid performers like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who bring a lot of polish to a very unpolished film.
My like and dislike for “Boyhood” come from the same place: the meandering, drifting narrative. I admire a film that strives to be different, but every experiment can’t be considered an overwhelming success. Sometimes one mixes the right batch of chemicals together and cures polio; other times the concoction creates mustard gas. “Boyhood” is neither a massive success nor an utter failure. “Boyhood” is revolutionary, but it’s too long and rudderless. I’m glad I saw it, but I don’t ever want to see it again. I was reminded of a “The Simpsons” episode in which Lisa listens to a jazz musician and advises that to enjoy the song one must listen to the notes she isn’t playing. This captures my feelings about “Boyhood.” Linklater has created something ethereal and unconventional, and for some that will be enough. I would rather see something with a little more structure.
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke
Directed by Richard Linklater