The acoustic intro to Coldplay’s “Yellow” plays out over a cloudy, blue sky. The distinct, cartoon images of Pokemon fling themselves across a 13-inch television. An argument between a young, single mother and her boyfriend rage on as her two children watch around the corner.
This is how Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater (School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly), begins. In the middle. As things are happening. To suggest these opening scenes are the beginning of the story is to miss the point of Linklater’s method. Roger Ebert once said that Linklater has invented his own style in order to simply listen to people. That is all. In keeping with this particular style, nothing resembling a typical plot shows up in Boyhood, rather we are witnessing life, listening to the mundane, the everyday. In a sense we are probably watching all the scenes that might have been left on the cutting room floor of another movie.
Boyhood is an extremely brilliant piece of art… in theory. The truly interesting aspect of the movie is in the patient manner it was shot. That is, it was filmed periodically between 2002 and 2013 thereby allowing each of the main characters (and some supporting characters) to age on screen for approximately 12 years. The story begins with Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) as they move from their sleepy, suburban town somewhere in Texas to Houston so Olivia can attend college. Olivia is prone to surrounding herself with abusive men; and moving to Houston proves to be no different. She marries her professor only to discover later that he is a verbally abusive alcoholic. She graduates college and dates a student, also a verbally abusive alcoholic. Mason and Samantha’s biological father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), drops in here and there to spend bowling or camping weekends with them. We are told that he was gone for a season working in Alaska, but what we really suspect is he was probably trying his hand as a musician and sometime lothario. All of these elements essentially show us that Linklater is capturing the typical experience of the broken family. Mom’s single with a boyfriend and perennially stressed out. Dad breezes through on certain weekends and then, just as quickly, disappears. And the children wonder whether their parents will ever get back together.
Linklater’s camera is subtle in this movie. There are no sweeping angles or elaborate tracking shots. Most of the scenes are stationary to exterior or interior sets, probably to suggest that the audience is simply a passive, omniscient witness to Mason’s slow march into adulthood. The soundtrack is a brilliantly eclectic mixture of pop culture hits of the day and more obscure tracks. It seems, really, that the music itself is its own character in the film, sometimes being explicitly referenced by Mason Sr. to teach young Mason about life and culture. Sometimes the music is there simply as an aural time machine beckoning us to travel back to the particular year in focus.
Both child actors do a great job, particularly, believe it or not, as younger children. Perhaps it’s their joie de vivre, their way of looking at the world with vibrance and childish innocence. A great scene showcasing the chemistry between the two siblings comes early when young Samantha awakens Mason by slamming him in the head with a pillow and singing “Oops, I Did it Again” (and performing some very funny choreography). The casting choices for both Samantha (Lorelei is Richard Linklater’s daughter) and Mason were brilliant. Both actors’ performances seem surprisingly authentic and natural (for being so young).
All of the things that I’ve mentioned so far are examples of the movie’s successes. Unfortunately, Boyhood suffers from the unbearable weight of its ultimate failure. As I previously mentioned, the movie works as a theory, as an exercise in artistic experimentation; but the novelty wears off somewhere through Mason’s teenage years. Linklater’s desire to remain untethered to the conventions of formulaic cinema is its own undoing. Another way of saying this is: the story goes absolutely nowhere. Sure, technically, everyone gets older. But do they overcome their circumstances? Does Mason and his family learn anything from the sick cycle of abusive relationships that his mother has put them in? That’s not at all clear.
Now, maybe I’m too formula-dependent, too Syd Field to think it’s cool that there is no story. But if there is no story then what is the point? That is the question that I kept returning to throughout the film. Okay, Mason has long hair and is a little bit older than he was in the last scene. What is the point? Olivia is no longer with the abusive professor, now she’s with the angry, overgrown Boy Scout. What is the point? What is the message that this movie wants to convey?
Towards the end of the film, after Mason graduates from high school, he has one last encounter with Mason Sr. and asks him flat out, “What’s the point… [of] any of this?” Mason Sr. has no clue. That is the best metaphor to describe what we, the audience, is left with after sticking with Linklater’s 2 hour and 46 minute magnum opus. What is the point?
There are also way too many unanswered questions regarding the characters, some of which are: Did Olivia made good decisions or bad ones? Did Mason Sr. really embrace Christianity or is he just trying to please his wife’s family? Has Mason learned anything from his experiences growing up? Will he introspect and thus rise above his family’s past mistakes or will he slip back into the same cycle that he grew up in? Posing these kinds of important questions to a movie like this produces indifferent silence. By the end of the film, Mason has failed to show that he possesses enough depth to even correctly identify his mother’s mistakes, let alone have a strategy to keep from following in her footsteps. Again, what is the point?
When Mason finally leaves for college Olivia begins to cry as she realizes that her life has essentially consisted of a series of anticlimactic benchmarks leading up to her eventual death. Gently shaking her head she whimpers, “I just thought there would be more.” This is the plight of the average nonbeliever. The end result of tying fulfillment to temporal experiences. The bottom line is: Nothing lasts and then you die. What can the nonbeliever do but sit in the corner of her small apartment, like Olivia, and cry?
This also shines a spotlight on the problem with having no plot. With no plot, there can be no idea or philosophy to consider. With no plot there can be no cinematic commentary on such an idea or philosophy. We might as well just go to the mall and listen in on people’s conversations. If you think that is super interesting then, by all means, go watch Boyhood. You will love it. If your time is too valuable to watch a 3 hour movie that does not say anything, then stay away from Boyhood. Its novelty quickly fades.
N.P. Sala received his B.Sc. in Religion in 2013 and is currently pursuing his M.Ed. in Secondary English at University of Nevada Las Vegas. He is the creator of the Christian Apologetics blog A Clear Lens and writes movie reviews for Let There Be Movies. Follow him on Twitter at @N8Sala.