On the Silver Screen – Boyhood
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is the story of Mason and chronicles his life from the age of five through to eighteen. Filmed over the course of twelve years to have the actors age naturally the story follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through the major events of his childhood and ends when he graduates from high school and starts college.
Such an experimental movie is worth a watch just to see the end result of twelve years in production, nothing like this has really been done before in fiction so it’s definitely unique in that respect. The question after that becomes, is the film any good and did it use the experimental style well?
For the most part, it does and certainly the early part of the film is very watchable. I found the initial scenes where Mason bickers and fights with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) really realistic as well as compelling, for a moment I forgot I was watching a film and thought I was watching footage of a real brother and sister winding each other up and fighting for no real reason. The way their mother (Patricia Arquette) reacts to all this only adds to the realism. Any one who has a sibling or has kids who have siblings can relate to this so it was a really nice start to the film.
Mason and Samantha are being raised by their mother alone which brings its own problems, their father played by Ethan Hawke is absent for a lot of their life but tries to be around and certainly has visitation rights so he comes and goes from the story. Their mother is the type who attracts dangerous drunks which puts her kids in real danger at a point in the story. I really liked how this was done, we see the conflict with their step dad from the perspective of Mason which means we don’t get the full story but to look at it with adult eyes it’s obvious what’s going on. It’s nicely done and subtle.
It’s after this point that the film starts to fall apart for me. I felt that the story rushed past many of the pivotal events in Mason’s life the older he got. Personally I felt that there was more time spent on the specifics of his childhood and I was really enjoying that but the teenage years were somewhat rushed. We’re told that the characters move a lot and have to make adjustments to new places but we’re not really shown much of them actually adjusting. There’s also a second step dad who comes and goes without much warning or explanation other than the implication that he’s another no good drunk.
What we are shown during the teenage years I didn’t find particularly compelling either, Mason has such a passive nature that he doesn’t seem excited about anything that’s going on in his life, it’s a realistic teenaged portrayal but I didn’t find it all that interesting to watch. I understand that Linklater was pushing for realism in this regard but it doesn’t quite work for me which is a shame as I thought it was working really well in the childhood scenes.
Beyond all that, I thought the film did a great job of showing the time period without stamping some text on the screen to signify it. The careful use of period specific songs and children’s trends of the time like the release of a Harry Potter book set the scene very nicely. I also enjoyed the banal discussions about gaming and the ironically hilarious conversation about making a new Star Wars movie.
The highlight of the film for me was Ethan Hawke as Mason’s father, he had some great lines and generally came across as a real and well rounded person. I liked how there was an implied demonisation of his character in the beginning given that he was the father who wasn’t around but as he made more appearances in the narrative we -and Mason- find out that he’s a good guy who loves his kids. I also liked Samantha who had a defined progression and clearly got smarter as she got older.
Mason wasn’t someone I ultimately engaged with by the end of the film. His scenes as a young boy were great and I liked that he seemed to lack any clear life direction or career worthy interests, it’s something that many people can relate to but as I said above the portrayal of the teenage years undid much of this for me. I also found it more difficult to engage with Coltrane’s performance as the story went on.
Overall, I thought this was a good movie and would recommend that people see it, the first half of the movie is truly great and I’m disappointed that what I enjoyed in the earlier scenes didn’t continue throughout the film. I’m also left wondering if the experiment was really necessary for telling this particular story. I doubt it would have changed my opinion of the film if they had swapped out child actors and applied makeup to the actors. For the most part I enjoyed it but felt that the second half let it down.