Growing pains: Richard Linklater's 'Boyhood' reviewed

Cinema is an art form uniquely bound up with the qualities of time: time’s duration, time’s passing, time’s continuities and its elisions. There is the time it takes to make a film and the time it takes to watch it — and, most interestingly, the passage of time that we understand to be taking place onscreen, whether that be a single minute, a day, or several years. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which took 12 years to film and takes nearly three hours to watch, is a film that has already been described as unique within the history of cinema. And maybe it is, in the narrow sense that there aren’t many — if any — films of such long gestation. But as a film about time itself it isn’t unique: all cinema is about time. More than this, Boyhood isn’t even very interesting.

In 2002 Linklater cast two young children, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (his own daughter), as siblings Mason and Samantha Evans in a then-untitled film about growing up in Texas. Patricia Arquette plays Olivia, the children’s mother, and Linklater’s long-term collaborator Ethan Hawke their father, Mason Sr. Every year for 12 consecutive years the cast regathered for a few weeks’ filming, and so the final movie brings us, by its conclusion, very close to the present day in which we the audience sit watching it.

Coltrane as Mason Jr is Boyhood’s central character and least skilled actor. He has a pleasant face — blue-eyed, snub-nosed — and we get to watch that face as it ages from six to eighteen years old, but little emotion ever passes across it. As a young boy Mason like to gaze out of windows, and as a teenager he turns the same look upon girls. His interior, subjective viewpoint is far less discernible. Mason Jr is less a character than a cipher, an onscreen stand-in for an American boyhood that we’re meant to understand as generic, even when — or especially when — the film also tries to convince us that this childhood is special.

I would have much preferred to see a film that focused on Arquette’s character, Olivia, who burns through a series of bad marriages but nevertheless manages to rear two level-headed kids out of the wreckage of her own decisions. She’s a decent person who never quite gains enough self-insight or scrapes together enough good fortune to lead the life she wants to lead — and that’s most of us, really. It’s all the more galling, then, when Linklater allows a minor plot point to revolve around Olivia helping out a young Mexican labourer. “You changed my life,” he gushes to her, and the falsity of it made me cringe. Linklater makes films about white Americans for largely white audiences, but I thought he was cleverer than to allow the hoary old cliche of a White Saviour to creep into his scriptwriting.

Then again, cliche is often Boyhood’s shortcoming: cliche mistaken for ordinariness, and sentimentality offered in place of insight. Boyhood is a long film in which nothing much happens to Mason or to anyone else, but that isn’t the problem — the problem is that Boyhood has little to say about the nothing much. It is a boring film because it doesn’t acknowledge that the inevitable, recurring boredom of living can be an interesting subject on its own. Boyhood never allows itself to be trivial — we never see anyone buying groceries, or picking their nose, or spending their days tied to a job they don’t enjoy. It’s a film that’s being celebrated as a triumph of realism, but it isn’t like real life at all.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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