If you’re anything like me, you’re tired of reading about Boyhood by now, and the film hasn’t even come out in Australia (it’s released tomorrow). There were the months of pre-release hype as the rumoured-Linklater-twelve-project became an actual thing being released. There was the tsunami of hyperbolic reviews – coming in progressive waves as it hit film festival after film festival – critics jumping over each other to shower the film with the highest praise possible (and let’s not even mention Twitter). There was the inevitable backlash, as the film was hit with thinkpieces about the danger of universal praise and other, more pressing issues, like the problems of Boyhood’s overwhelming whiteness.
So why on earth am I writing about it again? I have no intentions of reviewing the film again – certainly, the world doesn’t need another critic shift-F7’ing for synonyms for “excellent” or, even worse, burrowing into their own past to share a story about how their dad was mean that one time when they were twelve. But a second viewing clarified some of my feelings about the film and why I’m not entirely on board with the extensive accolades it’s receiving even while I do think the film is very good (and I do think you should definitely see it if you have not).
As much as I was impressed by my first viewing, I was a little underwhelmed because I expected something I didn’t quite get. I expected a portrait of what makes someone the person they are … but didn’t really get that sort of film; Linklater nonchalantly zips past the expected formative moments in Mason’s life (there’s no first kiss, to pick just one example). We do – as I posited in my initial review – get to see the influence of the men in Mason’s life, as he navigates a sinusoidal path through their competing orbits, but it’s misleading to describe that arc as the focus of the film.
I also expected a sense of narrative experimentation across these dozen years; especially after the wonderful (and, in my opinion, superior) 52 Tuesdays used its unique conceit to reshape a narrative to suit the needs of its actors rather than the pre-conceived demands of the character. Linklater’s spoken about how that did happen in the filming of Boyhood – Mason’s character was gradually modified to better match Coltrane’s personality – but that sense of growth isn’t really evident on the screen. The rough edges have, by and large, been smoothed over.
For me, Boyhood never really coheres into one thing – going in a second time, I didn’t expect it to, so it struck me as less of a failing. Still, it didn’t come together into some transcendental uprooting of all cinema as we know it as social media would have you believe. I can’t deny the formal beauty of the film – Linklater is eternally adept at crafting a nothing scene into something gorgeously transfixing – but, much like Mason’s mother, I couldn’t help but wish there was something more.
This write-up has been dominated by the first person more than my typical reviews, and that’s not accidental. I’m trying to present my perspective here, and perhaps that perspective is the very reason that Boyhood didn’t resonate as it did with so many others: I’m both too old and too young. The twelve years chronicled in the film takes place over pretty much post-teenager years, so my experience of pop culture – and culture in general, I suppose – is very different to Mason’s; younger critics can more closely relate to his life. Equally, without children of my own, the reflection on parenthood that runs through the film, particularly in its first half, doesn’t connect with me in the way it obviously has so many other viewers.
That’s part of it, sure. While the tone of this piece has been perhaps overly negative so far – I’m not trying to be contrarian guys, I like Boyhood a lot! – I want to end this completely unnecessary contribution to the wealth of writing on the film on a positive note. Specifically, a second viewing of the film clarified something ineffable about why the film works that slipped past me at the Sydney Film Festival.
Much of the pleasure of Boyhood comes from its texture – that beautiful drive to College set to “Hero” is undeniable – and it feels like something very specific. Boyhood is perhaps the best presentation of how we construct our memories of our youth – the way the moments we remember aren’t always placed in context, or the moments we “should” remember (notice how we see the first photo Mason ever took …but not the moment he took it). They’re just fragments, ephemera, the scattered pieces of our lives that stick with us years later. What Linklater has created here is a film that feels like how we remember; an impressive accomplishment.
The overlap between the realities of filming and the nature of memory synch up quite neatly. Early scenes, when Mason is younger (and Coltrane is a less reliable actor), are briefer and less dialogue-heavy. Later scenes tend to focus more on conversation, and take on a more traditional structure; for example, Mason expresses an interest in photography, then Mason is obsessed with a dark room, then Mason wins a photography competition. It’s all very linear and, I would argue, less interesting (certainly the conversations never approach the insight found in Linklater’s Before series). Part of this is that Coltrane’s acting comes across less genuine in his teenage years (his big break-up was equally underwhelming a second time), but it reflects how our lives gradually cohere into something tighter and less creative as we age into society’s expectations of who we should be.