January 30, 2015 by Zack
Richard Linklater has a way of turning the mundane and ordinary into something fascinating and hypnotic. Whether it’s the sweet, comical “Dazed and Confused” or the more subdued “Before Sunrise”, Linklater can pull you into his narrative with his aloof style that somehow keeps you watching. Maybe it’s the engaging characters or the appealing dialog, but I’ve never sat through one of his films and felt bored and detached, even though the atmosphere sometimes brings those kinds of characters to life.
With “Boyhood”, Linklater really tests your patience because the film clocks in at almost 3 hours (2 hrs 44 min). It follows 12 years in the life of a family, focusing on Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) growing up–but even though the film is called “Boyhood”, I think it deals with life in general as well as adolescence and maturity.
The story begins when Mason is 6 years old, living with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) in an apartment. Olivia has a bachelor-like boyfriend who doesn’t like that she has kids and a lifestyle that doesn’t fit his, so the two breakup. She decides to move back near her mother, taking the kids with her, so they can start a better life. She wants to go to school and she wants the kids to be in a house. Their biological father steps back into the picture (played by Ethan Hawke), and he represents the cool, irresponsible life that Olivia’s trying to leave behind. Mason Sr. lets the kids have fun and tells them about current events and things, but has very little to share about what it means to be accountable for anything.
As Mason grows up, they move in with various families, and home situations that are less than ideal. One stepfather seems like a good guy and has it all together, but soon unravels and shows himself to be an abusive drunk behind the picket fence and pretty white house. There’s an ex-military stepdad who tries to be nonchalant about the kids’ lives, but he seems unhappy and uninterested in helping them out too. He also is keen on drinking. But the film doesn’t have big dramatic moments or steep itself in sentimentality or melodrama. There’s almost a lazy eye feel to the insight into the characters’ lives. It’s not unfeeling, it just doesn’t have an agenda of obligatory drama.
The film, while lengthy, never stays in one place too long–much like the characters. There are a lot of elements thrown into the story, moving at a pace that lingers just long enough to reflect on a situation. In some ways I felt like many of the little stories could have been their own movies. This could’ve been a miniseries.
It still works as a film, though. Mason’s life is interesting, and as he grows up, he does become a bit insufferable as the artsy, pretentious, hipster-like “intellectual”. The film begins with him being very quiet but ends with him always having something to say. I didn’t feel that Linklater was trying to make a point of saying Mason was “what you should be” when you grow up, or make some statement about how intelligent kids can be. This is what an adolescent does. His sister Samantha forms the same kind of life, shutting out most of her family as she grows up. And Olivia, being the wanna-be responsible but utterly hopeless nomad, seems to be stuck in the middle rather than taking control. While she seems to criticize Mason Sr.’s instability with his own life, she doesn’t show that she has much of a handle on her own.
The flaws of the parents can be seen as destructive to their kids’ lives–but this film is not about judging them. It’s not a judgment at all. It’s simply a glimpse into people’s lives. You can take whatever you want from their decisions, opinions, lifestyles, what have you. Many people won’t agree with how they go about their lives. But Linklater’s not lecturing or proving a point. Sometimes life is just about observing, and reflecting.
As Mason Jr. states, rather well, late in the film–“It’s always right now”. And this film is living in that moment throughout. It’s engrossing, sometimes chilling, sometimes funny, but always interesting; and in the end, satisfying.