Boyhood is one of those films with such a unique premise that nearly all conversation surrounding it is bound to focus heavily just on the idea of the film, risking ignoring much of the film itself. I think the premise (filming the film over twelve years, with actors naturally ageing) played into Linklater’s naturalistic style very well, but the film had ups and downs not strictly related to that unique conceit.
I liked how the passage of time was handled; rather than very “cinematic” transitions it was completely natural. There were times I was unsure if we were simply onto the next scene, or if another year had passed. I feel like this indicates Linklater didn’t intend to make the structure overly showy. The twelve-year conceit connects neatly with the themes of the film such as the imperfections and awkwardness in growing up, the way the passage of time affects one and their relationships with others, whether people can change through the years, etc. I don’t find the conceit to be a “gimmick” to the extent that the film wouldn’t have worked without it; it would have worked just fine, but lacked the highly visual reinforcements of the film’s themes. That’s assuming the exact same script though, and I’m unsure if Linklater scripted the entire thing in advance and shifted it slightly with the passing of the years, or if he only came up with each year’s material in the same year he filmed it.
I’ve seen criticisms of the film being “all style and no substance”, but I think that’s ignoring Linklater’s style. Linklater isn’t a particularly symbolic director, or one concerned with very pointedly conveying themes; he’s a primarily naturalistic director that avoids conventional narrative structure. I think some feel that Boyhood was aiming for a grand statement on growing up and how the passage of time affects families, but I’m inclined to doubt Linklater solely intended that.
I suppose you could call the film meandering, but I’m not sure that terms makes an awful lot of sense for texts barely concerned with plot. I greatly enjoyed a lot of the scenes that had little “impact”, such as the scene of the boys playing in the house undergoing construction – I really liked how tension was built up but ultimately didn’t go anywhere. Linklater is concerned with realism more than melodrama; there’s an awful lot of scenes where it looks like something dramatic will happen but never does, and bizarre episodes that aren’t really brought up again (the “kidnapping” when they were young). That’s life! It’s jarring to see life depicted so un-cinematically on a film, but the twelve-years conceit ties into that too, the whole film is real and naturalistic to a fault. Mason was a pretty dull character, all things considered, but I’m unsure where I stand on that. Is it fascinating and daring to focus on such a character for a film like this? Or is it just…duller than it could have been?
Speaking of Mason, the cast was inconsistent. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette were excellent, as you’d expect. The child actors were not great, and seemed to have trouble emoting. I actually sort of liked that though. Again, it all plays into the naturalistic style. That doesn’t excuse it for someone who finds it dull or irritating, but I feel it does frame it in a relevant way.
For me personally, the film feels like a fascinating experiment, and a film so naturalistic and concerned with the “normal” un-exciting bits of life so rarely depicted in cinema that it seems exciting in its own right. But for all that (and Hawke and Arquette’s excellent performances), the main character left me cold enough that the film isn’t one I feel inclined to revisit. To my eyes, Mason barely developed and wasn’t acted particularly well, and it’s hard to deeply connect with a film – filmed over twelve years or otherwise – when it’s a struggle to connect with the main character. I love the idea of the film, but I did not love the film.
I give it three and a half personalised Bibles, and a shotgun.