Two children stare through the window as their parents argue just outside. The yelling is muffled and indistinct; vague words phase in and out of earshot as adult voices rise and fall.
This whole scene is an exercise in good filmmaking. Innocent faces watch curiously as their parents exchange heated emotion. The window blocks out the argument but allows the kids to see their parents leer and gesture at one another. Of course, without the window, the argument would likely have made little sense to those kids; such is the comprehension barrier between the worlds of adults and children.
The scene is brief and perhaps insignificant in the grand scheme of Boyhood, but it had me on the verge of tears. My discomfort with this moment is seeded in my personal experience; writer/director Richard Linklater brought back memories I share with my sister that I thought were long since buried. Every part of the mise en scène has a purpose, the message universal and affecting. Alas, such examples of Linklater’s brilliance only shine through Boyhood in fits and starts.
This is a movie of grand ambition. It seeks to capture twelve years of life in a comparatively short 2 hours and 45 minutes. In some ways, that premise forces the audience to experience the film as we do memory. Linklater communicates his vision with a series of telling snapshots of one boy’s transformation into an adult. The film meanders with the capricious abandon of life, paced at the speed of growing up.
But punctuated equilibrium has a darker side. Linklater finds himself stuck between two extremes. On one end, he seems to use the camera as if he were a fly on the wall, offering quick peaks into life without any story to get in the way of authenticity. On the other, he has created a fictional narrative film that has a beginning, middle and end. Each of these are legitimate approaches to this kind of project, but Linklater can’t decide which one he wants Boyhood to adopt.
This dichotomy manifests in the script. Sometimes we get pointed dialogue about life and responsibility that adds to the overall tone and message of the film. Other times, we get irritating pseudo-intellectual philosophical ramblings from the protagonist that feel more at home in Waking Life than they do in Boyhood. These distinct writing styles do not cohere the way they have in classic bildungsromans (e.g. Stand By Me).
The performances in Boyhood are similarly murky. They change so much over the course of three hours that it is difficult to assess them. At the start of the film, Patricia Arquette (Olivia) delivers her lines in a curiously over-rehearsed manner. Child actors Ellar Coltrane (Mason) and Lorelei Linklater (Samantha) mirror this stilted performance; Coltrane and Linklater (the younger) are believable when they’re interacting with one another, but do poorly in the company of their adult counterparts. As is often the case with kids, these scenes would have benefited from less direction and more organic, ad-libbed dialogue.
Things change when Ethan Hawke is introduced as Mason Sr, their heretofore absentee father. Hawke immediately injects raw energy into the film and his performance reamins a consistent bright spot. Although he enters the story as a self-righteous, flighty young man, he eventually matures into a competent and loving father. His evolution has a ring of truth to it. Linklater seems to argue that not all dads have the capacity to change, but this one does. It is a powerful statement.
The other actors radically improve in Hawke’s wake. Arquette in particular becomes crucially sympathetic in the second half of the movie. Her constant struggle to provide for her family while searching for companionship is both believable and heartbreaking. Coltrane also becomes more endearing over time, quickly shedding his meager childhood chops for solid adult acting talent.
It is an incredible experience seeing two actors get so much better in just a few hours, but a decade of growth will have the effect. I cannot say that I was as enamored with Lorelei Linklater’s later performances, however. Even as a teen, she continues to stumble through her part with a hollow commitment to the role. Fortunately, she takes more of a backseat in the latter half of the film and doesn’t get in the way of the story.
One of my favorite scenes in Boyhood comes right at the end. Mason, Jr. is in the green room of a theater. His father offers him a beer. Up until this point, Mason Jr. has experimented judiciously with alcohol and other drugs. But in this moment, he declines his father’s offer and takes a water instead.
With this simple decision, Linklater offers subtle closure for several narrative threads. Mason (and the audience) has seen a string of alcoholics move in and out of his mother’s life. Now, as he stands on the brink of adulthood, he makes a conscious choice to pass on a beer. I wish the rest of Boyhood was so focused, its message so clear.
Movie Verdict: Meh