As I mentioned on the SXBlog after seeing Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood, you can’t help but be impressed with the fact that this movie actually exists. When asked about it at a roundtable Q&A I attended, he said that about the only reason Boyhood did end up getting made as a singular, complete movie were personal connections at IFC Films (several studios were understandably intrigued by the project, but maybe just as understandably leery about not seeing any return on a large investment for over a decade and wanted to shoot Boyhood as a serialized TV special). When you hear the pitch, it does sound a little like he wanted to make The Truman Show in real life. Long-term documentary features have been done before, but rarely over such a period, and never (so far as I know) a narrative film.
But it does exist: a narrative feature film shot over the course of 12 years that explores one boy’s growth from a seven year old to a college freshman, and that is where the majority of the discussion rests. When other films are made, you can discuss the quality of the age makeup; here you just see a kid, the same kid, literally grow older before your eyes. It’s almost impossible to divorce the story behind this movie from the movie itself. Even when you try to discuss the story itself, it’s impossible to ignore the episodic nature of the film, the way it meanders – at times very beautifully – forward without a true feeling of purpose other than curiosity about how the characters will grow.
And that’s it, isn’t it? There is a narrative imposed on the proceedings; the boy, Mason (Ellar Salmon), lives with his sister and mother. His father, played by Ethan Hawke, is has been frequently absent leading up to the 7-year-old year of his life. I could talk about more, but that feels like it would do a disservice to the movie. I’ve noted elsewhere the wisdom in releasing only promotional pictures with a very young Mason on them so as not to spoil the surprise, and even though it doesn’t particularly matter what the plot ends up being (I don’t think), part of the fun is experiencing each new life turn with the characters. The trick of storytelling, isn’t it, especially in a visual medium? Even when the characters are the main attraction, the plot becomes important because of it.
The odd thing is, at the end of the movie I felt like I had just had an in-depth conversation, with someone I’d met for the first time, but still didn’t know the characters personally. It’s like when you were a freshman in college and you’d stay up to all hours of the night telling your life’s story to someone. They understood you a little, but they didn’t know you like a friend who’s been around for years. I guess that makes sense given the way the movie works, but it is a method of character exploration that is highly dependent on taste, especially when the stated goal is exploring “boyhood.” Linklater clearly believes (and I heard him say it) that there’s something important about having the same actor play every stage of boyhood, and I agree to a point. It’s a unique experience, certainly, but I’m not sure the narrative function is all that more effective than, say, the progression in Slumdog Millionaire. Each transition there is a little more jarring, but when a character is called by the same name, we adjust quickly enough.
The most obvious difference, though, is whereas Slumdog Millionaire had a carefully constructed narrative that couldn’t be deviated from, Linklater was shooting Boyhood from an architecture that included key plot points, but individual scenes were generally written and developed close to each annual shoot, based in part on what Ellar himself was going through. In that sense, Boyhood is absolutely a more pure exploration of, well, boyhood, but again, I’m not sure the 12 year filming structure was needed to achieve this. Tree of Life, for example, presents an incredible picture of what it means to be a young boy and the struggles inherent to growing up. It’s a matter of personal taste, I guess, but I found that portrait more emotionally engaging.
The reason I keep coming back to this idea of asking what was gained by filming in this particular style is because other than the admittedly compelling “because it was cool,” I’m struggling to identify what about boyhood and the experience of growing up this movie does better than others. The narrative does, at times, feel very constrained by its show every year structure. With similar films, you can jump through time to hit only the moments which are most important, most formative. Boyhood makes the argument that it all matters, and makes it pretty well, but that proves a less interesting story. There are narrative elements which feel a little bit repetitive, and the pic feels two or three year segments too long; it definitely suffers from multiple ending syndrome (a-la-Return of the King).
All of that said, Boyhood to me is a lot like Gravity: not the best film, had some narrative issues, but ought to be seen because the ways in which it is different from every single other film out there are worth experiencing. It’s fascinating to think about the logistical issues to work through, from finding a kid whose parents would sign them up for this crazy project, to roping in actors for the same. Again, the fact that Linklater and co. actually pulled this off is nothing short of remarkable.
The Verdict: 3 out of 5
This score is an attempt to describe the final film which we are presented with separate from any of the immensely compelling backstory to how this film was made. It is a good film. It is one I would recommend as a compelling, though in places flawed, picture of boyhood, childhood, family, and the difficulty and rewards of life. Which sounds a little cheesy and broad reaching, but that’s exactly what this movie is shooting for. Linklater had a clear vision for this grand experiment, and we see the results well-reported on screen. That said, the realities of how this movie was produced are so interesting and produce such a unique result that this should be a must-see even if those same realities are the cause of most of the film’s problems.