Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Boyhood (2014)

7/10 - Neither awe-struck nor terribly disappointed by Linklater’s Boyhood. I think of him as a maker of “small” films, ones that show little interest in dramatic structure (plot) but focus instead on gathering up the seemingly ordinary moments of life until they accumulate into a movie, sometimes with real emotional resonance. And Boyhood just seems like a bigger version of his “small” works. The technique of filming the same people over a period of 12 years may be ambitious, but the story itself and the way it plays out is very simple, in typical Linklater fashion. I wasn’t surprised to read that he conceived of Boyhood as a series of 10-15 minute short films done once a year for 12 years. That gives the movie some of its power, as we watch the four main characters literally transform over time, but it also accounts for Boyhood’s biggest shortcoming, since almost everyone else in the movie only appears in one “short film” and has no chance to develop. The most disappointing example comes in the story of the mother’s second marriage to a psychology professor who turns into an alcoholic. What should be a powerful episode in the film and in the lives of this family feels oddly distant and flat. This holds true for all of the relationships between the four members of the family with anyone outside of that core group. New husbands and wives, girlfriends, friends, colleagues, in-laws, they all seem like caricatures that the main characters play off of rather than real human beings, which makes the family we follow for almost three hours seem fairly narcissistic in the end. Of course, the movie centers on a boy’s life from age five to 18, and boys can be incredibly narcissistic at that age, but Boyhood ultimately feels like an emotionally colder film than it needs to be. A related problem is the length of the film. At 165 minutes, Boyhood is more than an hour longer than Linklater’s wonderful 1993 movie, Dazed and Confused, which was also a coming-of-age story, but one whose compressed time – the action takes place in a single day – benefits the director’s “small film” style more. Similarly, all of the movies in Linklater’s trilogy Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight were much shorter (Sunset clocks in at 80 minutes) and take place in a period of hours/days. I’m not sure the expansive nature of time – technical and narrative – in Boyhood serves Linklater’s style that well. Frankly, it just felt pretty slow at times. But the movie is interesting to watch for its technical feat (and some of its cinematography), there’s some good writing at times, and a few of the actors do quite well. Linklater was lucky to choose Ellar Coltrane to play his main character – how difficult to find someone at age 5 who will still be able to hold an audience’s attention at age 18. I liked the kid. And there are some beautiful and resonant “moments” that Linklater piles up in the course of the movie. One thing that did bother me about Boyhood is that it feels overly and inexplicably white. Having grown up in Texas in some of the same areas as this family, I found it bizarre that so few people of color appear in the film, especially since they are living in Houston and San Marcos most of the time. In my own boyhood, the classrooms, the school, the neighborhood, the church and the city I grew up in were quite mixed. It was infinitely more than a single scene of two Mexican-Americans working on a pipe outside of a house. That’s a strange portrayal of those parts of “Texas.” In the end, Boyhood is interesting for its cinematic achievement (though I don't know if it could or should be replicated), and a good film in many ways. But I prefer Dazed and Confused. I certainly prefer the music more. I’ll take the vapid rock and roll of Foghat over the precious and bland post-rock of Arcade Fire any day. But maybe that’s because Foghat was the music of my own boyhood.

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