Change can be swift over the course of 12 years. Opinions are formed, relationships sour, and unused gift cards expire. 12 years is also quite a risky timetable to film a movie, but that didn’t stop director Richard Linklater (director of “School of Rock,” and “Bernie”).
“Boyhood” is one of the most frustrating films I’ve had to explain my opinion on in a while. For one, it’s a milestone in cinematic history, the early stages of a life captured in real time with one cast over the course of one film. On the other hand, it’s hyperbolic in its minimalism and boring in spots and its overall narrative reach often exceeds its grasp. Even still, it’s one of the most important movies of the decade so far and you should experience it just to say you did.
That might not be a fair criticism against a film that’s more of a narrative experiment than a traditional story, but we’ll come back to that later. We closely follow the life of Mason Jr, played by relative newcomer Ellar Coltrane, over the course of his life. He and his sister Megan alternate between their divorced parents, aspiring college professor Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and blue collar musician Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). That’s the closest thing to a plot the film has, really; it’s a moving scrapbook of events from Mason’s life intercut with moments of parental bonding. They move all around Texas due to Olivia’s unlucky love life, the worst of which leads to an abusive relationship with her college professor. As a teenager, he does drugs and carves out his own niche through photography. He meets girls.
I know it sounds stop-and-start and kind of boring and unfortunately, some of it is. Firstly the screenplay, written by Linklater, is meticulous to a fault in laying out the details of Mason’s life. It starts off strong as we get to know Mason and see some of the events that will shape him into an adult, including a brief time with her mother’s alcoholic second husband and bonding time with his parents. Coltrane is a rare find who manages to keep Mason’s personality consistent over the course of 12 years, which is commendable. But as he grows older, he develops into an existential whiner whose glib outlook becomes insufferable, and because he’s the POV, his worldview and the skit-like structure become tough to handle after a while. That and the film itself being about 45 minutes too long cause it to drag around the hour and a half mark.
There are scenes that easily could’ve been removed to remedy this effect, namely a scene where a Mexican day laborer that Olivia recommends take English classes turns out to be the manager at a restaurant the family visits later in the film. He then takes the opportunity to tell the kids that their mom is a smart lady and to listen to her before leaving. The bizarre and (unintentionally) offensive scene adds nothing to the film beyond an awkwardly placed “Thank You, White People” moment that would feel at home in “The Help” or “The Blind Side.”
Even with Mason’s metamorphosis into an annoying teen archetype and an overlong running time, “Boyhood” is still a beautiful onscreen experience. Linklater’s ambition is backed up by excellent direction and camerawork. The cast ages into their parts well, with young Coltrane, Hawke, and Arquette as standouts. Regardless of how I may feel about the particular life being portrayed onscreen, it’s still 12 years literally unfolding before our eyes onscreen. Go give it a look, but know that it’s a film of peaks and valleys. Such is life.