(Nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Editing, and Best Supporting Actor/Actress.)
Film critics as a rule love innovation, love what is different, love what breaks them out of the lull of the norm. They watch lots of movies, and most of them blend together. So when a movie comes along that isn’t like every other movie, it gets a bit of extra attention from critics who, at the very least, are just glad they aren’t watching something they’ve seen a thousand times before.
As everyone knows by now, Boyhood was made under different circumstances than most other films. It’s a difference you can see on the screen. So right away, Richard Linklater gets brownie points for what seems unique (if reminiscent of the “Up” series). Similarly, Patricia Arquette’s performance is lauded, in part, because she allows herself to get older over the course of the making of the film. Ethan Hawke gets little attention for the same “trick”, mainly because the aging of male actors is more acceptable to the mainstream.
I do not hold these points against Linklater. I try not to let them be praiseworthy in themselves, though … what I want to know is if I like Boyhood, if I like Arquette’s performance, and within that context, the innovative strategies Linklater adopts matter.
Certainly, though, there is no denying the pleasures of seeing the characters (and the times being represented) grow over time in a “natural” way, rather than by the use of makeup, changing actors, CGI, or any of the other ways a movie can emulate a time and place. And I do think Linklater deserves praise for creating a project that could have gone wrong in so many ways. (Of the many anecdotes told about the making of the film, my favorite is that Linklater told Hawke that if the director died, the actor had to promise to finish the film.)
Despite all of this, though, the things I liked best about Boyhood weren’t particularly “new”. I liked Boyhood because it often played very much like the best of what Linklater has given us in the past. Linklater often lets his characters talk. He loves words, conversation, he is not afraid to just give us people talking to each other, and Linklater (and his actors, who are often closely involved in the creation of those words) manages to make talking fascinating in the way it reveals the character of the speakers. Granted, some viewers are bored by this, wondering when something is going to “happen”, fretting about the absence of any obvious narrative thrust. (I tend to be overly obsessive about narrative, myself, yet Linklater won me over long ago.) This is clearest in the “Before” series, and in Dazed and Confused, but also in Waking Life (where the “Before” characters have a cameo), and Slacker, which in retrospect is almost a manifesto about the kinds of movies Linklater will make. (Of course, he also slips in the occasional School of Rock or Bad News Bears.)
The structure of Boyhood doesn’t exactly lead to a narrative progression, but watching the characters age serves as a stand-in for that kind of forward movement. It’s not that specific events happen that move the story forward, it’s that the characters change before our eyes. Mason grows from 6 to 18, we know it’s the same actor, and in the later scenes, recognizing how the actors have changed along with the characters they play, we see a long-form story emerging.
There is something narrow about the world we see in Boyhood, reflected in part by the title. This isn’t the story of Mason’s older sister, Samantha, even though she is ever-present. It’s not that Linklater doesn’t know what to do with Samantha. It’s more than she isn’t quite important enough. I could take this too far … for all of her reported wavering interest in the project, Lorelei Linklater does well in the part. But there is never a point when she is the center of the story … it’s called Boyhood for a reason. The evolution of Mason, and the slower evolution of Mason Sr., offers interesting insight into the lives of American men. Ethan Hawke’s Dad, in particular, is allowed to mature just enough to turn an amiable guy who refuses to grow up into someone who finally seems to accept the passage of time.
Patricia Arquette’s Mom, Olivia, doesn’t get the same kind of growth. (As mentioned, neither does Samantha, but her character is more marginalized from the beginning.) In an excellent piece that turned up in the Wall Street Journal, Sharon Marcus and Anne Skomorowsky point out the importance of Olivia’s final scene, during what she calls “the worst day of my life”:
You know what I'm realizing? My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones. Getting married. Having kids. Getting divorced. The time that we thought you were dyslexic. When I taught you how to ride a bike. Getting divorced... again. Getting my masters degree. Finally getting the job I wanted. Sending Samantha off to college. Sending you off to college. You know what's next? Huh? It's my fucking funeral! … I just thought there would be more.
Marcus and Skomorowsky note that Olivia is Samantha’s role model: “Samantha’s mother presents care-taking and personal sacrifice as the deepest, worthiest sources of pleasure, but the film also suggests that they can be deeply unsatisfying.” Arquette is getting deserved raves for her performance, but those raves aren’t directed towards scenes where we see her at work as a teacher. It’s the emotionally damaged parts of Olivia that give Arquette the best chance at an Oscar.
One could argue that this shows us the reality of middle-age for women in America (at least in the movies), and we feel great sympathy for Arquette/Olivia. But it is nonetheless a restrictive “reality” that bodes poorly for Samantha’s future. Meanwhile, when we last see Mason, he is on psychedelics and offering the final word on the film: it is always right now. 9/10. For a companion piece, check out the “Before” trilogy, or the ongoing “Up” series.