Thursday, January 22, 2015

Ambitious Generation, Painfully Universal Story, Boyhood Still Succeeds!

The Good: Decent performances, Interesting characters, Good sense of realism
The Bad: No time stamps, Generally plotless
The Basics: Mason’s childhood in Texas is incredibly familiar for anyone who has a modern, turbulent family life and while the generation of the film is exceptional, the story is not.

With this year’s crop of Best Picture Oscar nominees coming largely, from films that were released late in the year or were just pretty unremarkable, I found myself woefully unprepared to update my Best Picture Project (check it out here!). So, I’ve issued myself a new challenge, which is to watch all eight nominees for Best Picture before the awards ceremony. Today, I’m finally catching Boyhood, which might not have the visual scope of Interstellar (reviewed here!), but it was created with a similar sense of ambition to it. Made famous for the way it took more than a decade to complete, Boyhood is a family drama that feels almost like a documentary.

Unlike most of the other Best Picture Nominees that were released in 2014, Boyhood was not released during the traditional Oscar Pandering Season, though like most of the nominees was released more to art house theaters than the year’s traditional studio releases and blockbusters. Of the nominated films, though, Boyhood so far is the one to get my vote, despite the issues I have with the film.

At age five, Mason is growing up with his mother (Olivia) and sister (Samantha), when his mom decides to move in order to continue her education. They move closer to their grandmother and Mason has a lot of trouble focusing. One day, his father pops back up and takes the kids out. Samantha and Mason compete with one another for their father’s attention and he works not to badmouth his ex-partner too much. By bringing the kids home, Mason’s father messes up his ex-‘s plans and Mason once again watches his parents fight. Mason’s mother marries her college professor, Bill, and Mason and Samantha become part of a blended family with Bill’s children.

Bill is a jerk (and an alcoholic) who exerts more influence over Mason’s life than the boy is comfortable with. While Olivia focuses on her schoolwork, Bill deals with the children day to day (like getting Mason a haircut that is far shorter than the boy wants). When Bill gets drunk and he starts acting more overtly abusive. Olivia stands up and leaves Bill, much to the consternation of Mason and Samantha (who wonder why their step-siblings can’t come with them). Over the years, Mason sees his father occasionally, and while his father slowly gets his life together, Mason heads down a number of the same roads as his father.

Boyhood is one of those rare films where the purpose of the film is simple and it achieves all of its goals, but it does not make for an exceptional movie. Boyhood is not a statement film; it is a cinematic experience. The film documents thirteen years of Mason’s life, but the life of the child is hardly remarkable and, as one who is deliberately child-free, is hardly interesting. Richard Linklater set out to make a film that illustrated change and growth over the years and he accomplishes that. And perhaps in the 1950s, this would have been an audacious film. But now – and Boyhood is set in contemporary times (one of the earliest snippets has a Britney Spears reference) – the number of people who grow up in blended families and who have step parents who assume the parenting duties while the biological parents have lesser influence is hardly an uncommon experience.

For a film that tries to create a continuum of the childhood experience, Boyhood can be problematic to watch, especially for those not clued into the pop culture references throughout. Boyhood does not contain time stamps, which I found irksome. Time changes occur through strong visual cues, like Mason’s hair abruptly growing back the scene after it was sheered off. Boyhood would have worked better on the clarity level to show the breaks.

Linklater is good at doing what he is trying to do; the viewer watches Mason age on screen. The acting in Boyhood is wonderful. Ethan Hawke plays Mason’s father well, the apparent slacker who is politically-active, but not grounded. Hawke does well with the role of a man who was clearly not ready or tuned in to being a father. Patricia Arquette, similarly, plays Olivia well. Unfortunately for a lot of viewers, the character she plays is fundamentally unlikable. While Olivia seems, on the surface, to be admirable, she betters herself to the neglect of her children, putting Mason and Samantha in some lousy situations as she ignores them to serve her own wants.

Mason is interesting-enough, though his arc is hardly surprising or uncommon. He is well-played by Ellar Coltrane. Coltrane is (mostly) responsible for doing what he was doing anyway; growing up. Mason is hardly a distinct or original character and that is the strength of Boyhood. Boyhood tells a universal story well; that makes for an interesting document, but a film that is hardly exceptional.

For other works with Ethan Hawke, please check out my reviews of:
Total Recall
Fast Food Nation


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2015 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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