Film Review: Boyhood

Blessed Lord Almighty is Boyhood bad: nearly three hours of scene after scene going nowhere powered by tedious, superficial chit-chat. At the two-hour, twenty-six minute mark, Ethan Hawke gets asked "What's the point?" by-then-former-child-actor Ellar Coltrane (perhaps it was the other way around– I could barely focus on the film by this point). I can't give you a memorable quote in response to this all-too-valid question, and it's a dull, uninspired scene. 

 

When it comes to endless, awful films set in Texas, I've had 1956's Giant at the top of my list. However, Giant has memorable imagery centered on James Dean splattered with oil smoking a cigarette. Does Dean's three or four great scenes put Giant at 200 minutes below Boyhood's 166 minutes of irredeemably lackluster imagery, plot and dialogue?  

 

Yeah, he shot this over 12 years, but don't turn director Richard Linklater into Michael Apted. The UP Series, where Apted filmed the lives of actual British people since they were schoolchildren in the mid-60s, offers real emotion, surprising twists, and, of course, the basis for some limited evaluation of the nation in which the children live. For all of Linklater's indie cred, Boyhood represents nothing more than a 12-year vanity project consisting of Hollywood pablum where young Mason, Jr. grows up into a stereotypical sensitive artist with contra-mainstream ideals (and, eventually, killer looks, hair, and love interests). Every year that Linklater filmed, every year that the actors grew a little older, every year where the actors and Linklater drafted the script for those few scenes . . . saw at least three films covering similar teenage material.  

 

If you are going to make this kind of effort to create a project, shouldn't you have something original to say? Linklater and company offer only ABC's Afterschool Special-quality insights all through Boyhood. The drama centers on drinking, abusive step-fathers, biological fathers trying to connect during visitation, the angst of being white and lower-middle-class, the horrors of George W. Bush and his racist supporters, new schools with girls and bullies, and such. The whole real-life passage of time angle, celebrated by publicists looking to sell tickets to the gullible, echoed by critics beaten senseless by violent GCI scenes from Godzilla to Planet of the Apes, can't make up for the superficial script, the lack of editing (a.k.a Linklater's cinematic style), and performances that are merely okay. No one grabs the screen like Dean did by just twirling a rope in a beat-up cowboy hat.  

 

When the film opens, Mason, Jr. is about six, sharing his room with an older sister (Linklater's own child Lorelei)  Single Mom Patricia Arquette (two years away from her role in Medium when shooting started) struggles without much help from irresponsible, but still cool musician Dad (Ethan Hawke). Arquette meets promising men, who turn out to be damaged (or even dangerous to her family). Dad takes the kids on visitation weekend outings in his old GTO, lecturing them on liberal ideals in a fashion you only see only in Hollywood movies when scriptwriters can't think of anything meaningful to say. Pop talks Obama and condoms (how edgy). The children grow older, taller and prettier through struggles and experiences that make up The Facts of Life canon. Dad and son bond over The Beatles (a "black album" – the only time anything "black" appears in this movie). The son's hair grows longer, he paints his nails, takes photographs, and finds girls, booze, and drugs. Music and montage are the orders of the day: SOMEONE has yet to recover from Dazed and Confused.

 

Look Dudes: when you have, like, sharp, like, dialogue, and a point to your scenes, really, you know, when the story has an arc (or something), and characters, like, you find a phenomenon akin to interesting filmmaking. In other words, movie dialogue is to human speech what race car driving is to drunk driving. It takes a degree of mastery to make a turn at 120mph or bounce your lingo for your audience to enjoy. You can't drift all over the highway shooting inside a black GTO bantering about your week and think you've made good work.  

 

What is good dialogue? The Lion in Winter [1968], a classic, consists of nothing more than dialogue spoken by family members with complex relationships. Their evolving animosities create tension, leading to action and drama. Oh, The Lion in Winter has humor and transcendent actors including Peter O'Toole, Kate Hepburn, Tony Hopkins and Nigel Terry. Want a strong woman confronting her drunken, abusive husband?  Check out Kate as Eleanor of Acquitaine telling Peter as Henry II that she slept with his father the day before they married. Boyhood doesn't measure up as drama.

 

In fact, this film doesn't even measure up to material John Hughes created in the 1980s and early 1990s. Boyhood, for all its length, lacks action, humor, or character depth. I'm not sure the acting surpasses Pretty in Pink. Hughes put his characters through far more angst than Linklater does here. We may just make it to the Some Kind of Wonderful color wheel of teenage pain and alienation.  

  

Variety just gushed over the actors writing big chunks of the script. Trust me, Boyhood does look like it was written by a committee: it's predictable, bland, border-line cliche, with scenes extending for no reason but to give the actors a chance to blather. Notice that Mamet guy: he tends to write it all out himself. What is the point of seeing a child grow up to a college arts student? Linklater has no idea. Bill Cosby had more of an agenda sending Denise and Theo to university. Dead Poets Society had more to say about youth and art.  

 

In an America coming off fourteen years of active warfare, you can't tell me we lack material for "kitchen sink drama." Richard Linklater isn't John Osbourne or Sean O'Casey or Eugene O'Neil.    

 

Once, Americans made interesting work of families struggling to stay together during catastrophic duress.  Steinbeck sent the Joads westward through the Dust Bowl facing genuinely terrifying prospects. Heck, I beat up on The Last Picture Show, which also had sex, youth, angst, dysfunctional families, dialogue and annoying musical montages with Hank Williams. Suddenly, it doesn't look so bad. The Sopranos had more to say about growing up in white America, not to mention the Whites of Albuquerque. Hope and pain inside the family have been American literary staples since Hawthrone and Harriet Beecher Stowe. Carson McCullers, Tennessee William and James Baldwin also created material for great narrative drama centered on families. Instead Richard Linklater has just wasted twelve years to remind us just how artistically deaf he is.

Leave a Reply