One Year Later: Is BOYHOOD As Terrible As I Remember?
Yes. Yes it absolutely is. Allow me to back up; when I saw BOYHOOD in theaters, it was the worst theater going experience I’ve ever had. I didn’t walk out of it; that distinction has so far been reserved for ANCHORMAN 2 and, very recently, HITMAN: AGENT 47. But those were films that were generally accepted as being bad, I could acknowledge that they just weren’t for me and move on. I stuck through all 165 agonizing minutes of BOYHOOD, expecting the brilliant, game-changing movie everyone had told me about to reveal itself. Instead, I only found a cheap, sentimental gimmick.
As I sat down to attempt BOYHOOD for a second time, I had a vague hope that maybe some key scenes had slipped by me, and that some connective narrative tissue that everyone else had seen would reveal itself. Sadly, it turns out that every miserable, directionless scene had burned itself into my brain, and I recalled all of it with painful clarity. All three torturous hours of it.
This is a film that does something that has never been done before, and the only thing it proves is that there’s a reason it’s never been done before. It meanders in no particular direction, it is entirely without conflict or compelling characters. It almost feels like although Linklater at least had a story in his head going into this project, every time he jumps forward a year, he intentionally forgot what was filmed the previous year. Mason, the titular boy, wanders through this movie as the most flat and broad character this side of an after school special. Does Mason show any signs of growth, maturity, or insight based on his experiences? No, instead he receives stern lecture after stern lecture from the adult males in his life. Mason, as a character, remains quiet, moody, and “artsy” for his infuriatingly long teenage years. Now, one could argue that this is “like real life”, where people do not directly tie together the formative moments of their lives. I would counter that the entire point of any narrative is to do exactly that, exploring the key moments that brought us to where we are.
Mason’s “artsy” nature is signified by the beard
As individuals, we all have a narrative in our heads: “I went through this, I did that, I always felt like this, my parents never… and that’s why I do x, y, and z today.” It’s fundamental to the human experience, and for a film that is supposed to be about the process of growing up, some sort of narrative is absolutely necessary. In BOYHOOD, Mason is never allowed a “my parents separated when I was young, my mom married drunk assholes, and that’s why I act like this today” scene. I do not care how revolutionary your method of creating a story is, if you put a fictional character in front of an audience, that audience needs a moment to understand why that character is who he is, especially if he’s growing up right before their eyes. But Mason never has that because he remains disengaged and practically voiceless for the vast majority of the film.
The realization I had upon a second viewing of BOYHOOD is that it never once puts Mason in a situation where he’s actively doing something, where he personally has to make a tough decision and live with it. Where is the scene where Mason gets way too high and has to drive himself home? Where’s the scene where he discovers masturbation? Where his best friend sleeps with his sister? Why don’t we actually see the first time he has sex, in all its awkward, fumbling glory? Some of these might seem like uncomfortable scenes to watch, but growing up is deeply uncomfortable, and these are real formative experiences real people have.
The real, unforgivable sin of this movie is that Linklater convinced the general public that they were getting “real life”, when in reality he’s presenting a PG-13 version of real life. It’s a safe, neutral presentation of the slices of life people all go through (if they’re middle class white Americans, anyway). There are no universal truths relayed in BOYHOOD, instead it’s a Hobby Lobby scrapbook of “remember when you did (blank)?” Real life will always have its rated R moments, the reason why we think older people can handle seeing things younger people can’t is because reaching adulthood means living through your own mature experiences. (I know the film received an R rating from the MPAA, but I think anyone who has actually seen the film can agree the rating is unwarranted.) Linklater shelters his protagonist, and by extension, the audience, from ever experiencing the truly messy and awful parts of life. Without giving us the very real lows of life, Linklater also never delivers any of its highs.
People will always defend this movie’s lack of a narrative as being part of the experiment, but I would counter that there is such a supreme lack of experimentation in the rest of the film that it renders defending BOYHOOD in that regard futile. I do not see the “breath-taking” editing so many people refer to, I find the cinematography safe and needlessly objective, and the acting is mostly shallow. What is Linklater trying to actually say with this film? What does he have to say about time, aging, the nature of growing up? What are the themes of this film beyond “sometimes moms marry the same bad guy over and over”? Is he sending a message about the strained nature of the modern American family? I really don’t think any of this can be answered in an honest reading of the film, there is no depth to anything that happens to any of the characters. If you stripped away the “use the same actors for twelve years” gimmick, the actual story would reveal itself to be about as exciting as a dental check up.
Most cavities are more entertaining
I hate BOYHOOD to such a passionate degree because it was so revered. Had it remained on the fringes and acknowledged as the noble but failed experiment that it is, I would probably have already forgotten about it. It’s the fact that it seemed to take popular culture by storm, the fact that Patricia Arquette won an entirely unwarranted Oscar, the fact that the nonexistent script was nominated for a best screenplay Oscar, that I just can’t let go of. In this second viewing, I have to admit that there are a couple effective scenes, my personal favorite being the long single-take scene in which Mason walks with a girl from his class and chats with her in a very realistic way. A few good scenes do not make a “modern epic classic”, though. People talk about this film like it’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or BEN-HUR, and it really, really is not. My only hope is that another year from now, people will have forgotten about this film and it will remain out of the history books. No matter what, it’s not going to be scrubbed from my brain.