Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Boyhood Review - The Dividing Line At Its Most Divisive

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was the big critical darling of 2014, receiving a wealth of praise and awards nominations. Its only competitor was Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman. When the Oscar awards were announced, Boyhood only received one out of the five awards it was up for: Best Actress for Patricia Arquette. Even ignoring her excellent victory speech – and, worse, my relative lack of familiarity with the other Best Actress nominees, I am glad that Arquette won. The why of that can be most smartly conveyed by reviewing the movie itself.

For those who don’t know the background: between 2002 and 2013, writer-director Richard Linklater gathered a handful of actors and two children, recording some scenes with them every year. Together, those scenes comprise Boyhood. As in several of his past works, Linklater eschewed a traditional narrative, crafting a film that focused on creating a thorough tableau of what it’s like to go from mid-childhood to early adulthood in the American state of Texas.

So, over the course of 2 hours and 45 minutes, we become acquainted with the Evans family: Olivia Evans (Patricia Arquette) is a single mother with a six year-old son, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, the lead here), as well as Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), a daughter who is roughly two years older than her sibling. Olivia works her ass off to raise and maintain her family. She attends college courses so that she can become a teacher and earn a little more. She moves the kids from one place to another so they can save money. And she is drawn to men who seem to be able to offer a stable home for her children.

Throughout this time, we see the kids play, annoy their mom, and enjoy the occasional presence of their biological dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Homes come and go, mom’s new husbands come and go, but the one constant in this story is the Evans family, going through life and growing older over time.

I was a bit conflicted as I started to watch this picture. It’s really divided audiences, with some hating the overall experience, despite its strong points. Moreover, it’s a very long movie, one I was watching more out of obligation than anything else: so I could close out my run of 2014's major films. I wasn’t sure how I would feel in the end, just that it would take up a lot of my limited time.

While I didn’t love Linklater’s creation, I didn’t sit through a terrible, slow nuisance, and I walked away with a lot of appreciation for what he wrought. Boyhood may not be as amazing as others have made it out to be, yet it isn’t as awful as its detractors have claimed. It’s a solid effort with a weak lead, one that covers the kind of touchy-feely moments we’ve all been through, offering the viewer a sort of experience that is so aimless and circumstantial as to reflect the way a life can really play out. People hated it because it didn’t convey the sort of narrative elements (e.g., setup and payoff) that they are used to getting from a film. It’s just a coin toss as to whether the failing is on the side of the director or the viewer.

Time jumps occur more frequently and unexpectedly than in Primer, the twistiest time-travel movie I’ve ever seen. Most of the running time goes through family fights, hanging out with friends, and watching the parents squabble – all the things that kids have to passively observe in their own lives. You might expect the next scene to pick up or follow through on the one before, yet that almost never happens. Instead, you’re suddenly thrust into a new moment, and only the changed hair styles or some snatches of dialogue clue you in to the fact that you’re a year or so in the future.

Some really nice camera movement and framing accompanies this non-tale. Often, the camera is locked-down, going from one person to the next - like swiveling your head back and forth during a tennis match. Yet, at other times, the camera feels like a living thing, and that really puts you in the scene. There are a few too many moments where the shots should be filmed from about 2-5 feet farther back, but I am too impressed by what the cinematography does much of the time for me to cry foul.

The score is a little more problematic. It’s filled with indie hits that make you feel the passage of time – or whatever the director is driving at – and that make certain scenes and moments feel either forced or nearly-desperate to appeal to the indie crowd. That might not have been the best choice on the director’s part – my interpretation might have been wrong, but to me it borders on parody more than twice. For my part, I will only say that Linklater’s love of artists and music results in too many scenes of Ethan Hawke playing guitar and singing (I groaned every time) – all of them made me feel annoyed and like I was actively growing older; what worked in the Before Sunrise series does not play as well here, and Richard should have recognized that. On the subject, my notes only include the words “Ethan sings and strums. I could hate this movie for that alone.”

As a result of the way Boyhood is designed, you sometimes stumble into the middle of a storyline without any warning. I do think that the way things suddenly occur can produce a great, jarring effect because things hit you unexpectedly, which is how life itself often works.

The big problem is just the lead. Even aside from issues like how good an actor he is or isn't, that aforementioned apathy/listlessness/low key manner is just the pits. I think lots of audience members - especially those who go to see arthouse films like Boyhood - don't need to have a lovable lead, and may be able to appreciate an unlikable lead. This lead, however, pushes the bounds of our tolerance - and it's probably even worse for viewers who love and make their own art.

Olivia's incredible. Mason mumbles & stands by like a loser while his mom cries. UGH

A leading role needs a certain degree of passion. It doesn't have to be a loud love of life - and it doesn't apply to movies that are explicitly about apathy or depression - yet there does need to be something there, some spark. And this kid has no fire for anything.

The most damning element of the role, and the way that he's written, is that this kid has zero passion. Dear God, he doesn't even seem passionate about his girlfriends, any member of his family, or the photography that he spends so much time on. It's the last part that is particularly confusing, because Linklater is a devoted artist, and that passion for life, as well as the themes he loves the most, comes through in all his work. How did he direct a film with a boy who is this bland, and yet isn’t on, like, Ritalin or something?

You can't have a central character who just shyly says, "yeah sure" most of the time, unless he undergoes some incredible experience - or at least a remarkable or impressive one. Hell, if the movie is really showcasing the events that comprise a life, why don't I know what this kid's regular days or nights are like? There are a few moments where you get that feeling, but other sections stick to highlights which never pay off.

Yet gripes about this should be tempered a bit by taking the movie in context of Linklater’s past work. The man has themes and interests, and they are apparent in so much of this story – they’re even apparent in the nine movies that he released during the course of making Boyhood. RL focuses on art, Americana, and the figures that inspire or push people forward in life. Above all, he cares deeply about the simple and complex nature of (specific types of) young people.

Much like Woody Allen, Linklater always features people talking, his films always just observing them as they have awkward and/or very personal conversations. He loves showing people connect with one another, both in the way they reveal themselves to each other and the little lies or lines that they spin because of vanity or pride.

As seen so clearly in our protagonist, those conversations are never actually deep or amazing or profound. His leading men (it’s almost always leading men) have an underlying simplicity to their thoughtfulness – so they like to expound about life, almost working it out aloud for themselves, yet it’s nothing new or profound. This means that even the walking shrug known as Mason Evans, Jr., is neither unusual nor undercooked. It’s simply a shame that the character doesn’t have more (or even any) charisma, and that Linklater’s dialogue here isn’t a little sharper.

Boyhood was a pretty good film; it didn’t lag like I expected it to, the kids were frequently adorable and funny, and I liked the overall portrait that it creates. I think that it’s a lesser work than the movies nominated for Best Picture, and yet I’m glad that this director received as much recognition as he did. Richard Linklater took a bold concept and executed it in a very admirable way. The filmmaker’s work is a considerable accomplishment, one that is only somewhat marred by its flaws.

Honestly, I would have responded (and liked) more a movie centered around Patricia Arquette’s Olivia, but that’s virtually an obvious complaint. I only wish that Ellar Coltrane’s role wasn’t such a massive dud. Imagine how cool it would have been to follow a boy that had an interesting life, or that grew up to have some spark within him. If you come into this ready to go along for the ride and not expecting some grand revelation about human existence, you should enjoy it - warts and all.

Jared Leto, f--k you and your lousy hair/beard and your Dumb and Dumber tuxedo. I hate that you're in my clip.

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