People told me I would like it. I don’t really remember who. “The part when the dad is commenting on Wilco to his son” or maybe it’s the scene when the dad gives his son, on his fifteenth birthday, “the black album,” a carefully arranged and burned double disc set comprised of the best of the ex-Beatles. Sure, we all have contemplated such an album. I know how I’d lay it out . . . and not like the dad in the film did.
But then the dad in the film really isn’t very swift. And, as one who has never been intrigued or entertained by Ethan Hawke, I’m surprised to say I found him the best thing in the film. He at least is never bowed down, always puts a good face on things for his kids. Granted, he’s only a partial care-giver, the weekend dad, but we never see him being a total asshole like every other guy his ex-wife falls for. Eventually he ends up with a new wife, a new kid, in-laws who are Christers, and he had to sell off his classic black GTO for a mini-van. And yet he faces it all with sly self-deprecation. At the start, he’s already separated from Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who mainly just looks dazed and needy—except when in front of the college class she teaches when her son is in middle school.
The film has been hailed and acclaimed—mainly, it seems, for the gimmick of filming at intervals over a twelve-year period, 2002-2013, so that the child Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s child) age from grade school to college. Wow. But if you’ve watched an ongoing series like The Sopranos, you saw AJ undergo a similar transformation in almost ten years on the air. And that family, unlike the family in Boyhood, is at times exciting, at times entertaining. The height of entertainment here is when little Sam mimics Britney Spears to annoy her brother. And that’s in the first half hour.
It’s a slice-of-life film, alright. It starts to feel like that holiday visit you sometimes find yourself undergoing with some relations you barely keep up with because they’re so damn boring. Oh, did you ever get that masters? Oh, you’re dating your professor? Oh you married him and made a family of your two kids and his two? Real Brady Bunch stuff, huh? Oh, he drinks. Oh, he smacks you? So, you moved out on him, wow, good for you. Oh, so now you’re a professor and dating a student? Oh and he was in the military and works in a correction facility. In Texas? Uh huh. Listen, I gotta go.
And that’s just mom, who at least keeps managing one train wreck after another. We never quite learn why she dumped good ol’ Mason Senior (Hawke) except he was probably real self-centered or something. But the main story here—hence the film’s title—is supposed to be, I suppose, the journey of a child into a man. The problem is Linklater forgot to write a character for his main character. The kid is pretty minimal. Even when he has to go to school with a buzz-cut enforced by his mom’s second husband, he doesn’t get any shit. Even when they run out on the abusive psych-prof dad and Mason has to be the new kid in school, it’s all OK. Because the film is more or less PG (except for underage drinking and smoking), we’re spared anything like masturbation or awkward first times with girls. As a senior in high school, Mason kinda gets dumped when his heart-throb, Sheena, winds up in bed with a lacrosse player. Not even a football player. In Texas.
The entire film is so anodyne you find yourself waiting for something dramatic to happen—as it sometimes does to people in real life. A bout of serious illness. An injury. Hey, maybe he’s looking at the phone photo of a pig a little too long while driving, he could have an accident. Firearms! You could shoot someone’s eye out, kid! Nada. Even his boss at the restaurant he works at as a busboy isn’t really an asshole. Folks are mostly decent if you only see ‘em in little clips.
Acting isn’t really something you can talk about here because mainly the actors just get older. As a kid, Coltrane has good screen presence and as a teen who wants to be serious about photography he’s able to field with nice understated aplomb some bully-ish advice from a teacher. As a kid going to college with a scholarship he’s so low key you’d welcome a visit from any of the stoners or jocks or nerds in Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. Those kids were amusing, but then, they were portraying Linklater’s generation. Linklater knew them intimately. He knew how to find them amusing, looking back. Portraying his children’s generation, he suffers from “nice dad” complex. It’s all good! And it wouldn’t be very sporting to mock his progeny and their peers, would it? (Admittedly, there is a scene with kids hanging out with slightly older kids as in Dazed, and Mason Jr. comes home a bit stoned to encounter Mom much as Mitch does in Dazed, so, yeah. But the charm of the replay is a bit offset by the bland fact that, from Linklater's point of view, nothing has changed. The kids are alright, always.)
Linklater began his career with Slacker, an exploration of a “day in the life” of Austin, TX, that kept its feet moving. It never stayed too long with any of its oddball bohemians and so they all remained more or less likeable, people you met at a party who said something amusing you might still remember. Somewhere along the way he made a career of filming Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy at intervals to keep adding chapters to what began as a “cute meet/cute date” movie Before Sunrise (1995) and then tried to be something more. As if life could really be revealed on a date. It worked the first time because everyone has that fantasy of a fulfilling “one nighter” with a stranger where it’s all about potential and promise. But “catching up” is not like that. It’s pretty much a bummer for the listener, and probably even for the participants (if they were real).
If the characters in Boyhood were real, not scripted—like the kids in Seven Up! and its sequels—then it might be interesting to see what becomes of this family, as examples of the era. Then, if it’s dull, we can blame real life, and we could even have the kids talk to the camera, confiding to us what it’s like, from their perspective in the moment. Instead, we get Mason driving a car, inveighing about online life and the robotic nature of the gadget generation to his blandly smiling girlfriend. Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, besides doing the funny Spears imitation (maybe he should’ve just made a film about her as a kid), gets a good scene where Mason Snr embarrasses her, in adolescence, by suggesting her boyfriend wear a rubber, and another good scene when mom tells the kids they have to cull whatever they want from the house she’s selling out from under them after they go off to college. The look on the girl’s face, listening to yet more obtuse justification from this woman who seems utterly lacking in interiority, is full of internal remorse and a stoic sense of how not to give into the pain.
Linklater likes to end films with sunrise, the morning after, a trip to the outdoors. We get both in this one, when, first, Mason stays up all night, rite de passage-style, with Sheena and they sleep together in his sister’s dorm room while she’s away. Later, he and his first college roommate and two nice girls hike into the wilderness and stare off into the distance, but even when supposedly on mushrooms these kids are polite, bland, matter-of-fact. No wise asses, no aggression, no depression. I guess angst is so 20th Century.
Makes you wonder whatever happened to the kids left with belligerent, drinking dad, the psych prof. What was he so angry about? That he was trapped in a dumb role? I wonder if he and Olivia ever had a single conversation. I wonder if the kids of the father and the kids of the mother ever felt awkward living together. I wonder if Mason or the other kid had any fantasies they’d be ashamed of us learning about. I wonder if they ever listened to any music on their own and felt it defined their generation.
In a sense the film is a major statement: Living through childhood is simply biological. It doesn’t mean a thing. You just got to get through it. Kinda like watching this film.
[Feb. 10: This just in: Kajsa directed me to this clip of online dudes discussing the extraordinary cinematic feat that is Boyhood. Yup. 12 years.]