"I thought there’d be more to it than that" says mother Patricia Arquette towards the end of the film as the son she has watched grow up through financial troubles and a series of abusive relationships, finally leaves the nest to start a new life at college. Her line echoes the general feeling that lingers after experiencing “Boyhood”. Richard Linklater’s film gained much attention for its scope and ambition: capturing 12 years of a boy’s life from childhood to adulthood using the same actors, enabling them – and Linklater himself – to grow along with their characters. The idea is for the viewers to witness that growth, and through it experience the miracle that is everyday life.
The first objective is an inarguable success. Through its 165 minutes of runtime, we experience protagonist Mason’s evolution from a curious 6 year-old to a confused 18 year-old still looking for a “right way” to live his life. This evolution takes place over a series of episodes, centered at first around his single mother’s college studies and relationships, in which Mason is more witness than actor, then gradually over his own personal life experiences: Going out drinking with older boys, making up stories about his sexual experience when he finds his masculinity challenged, himself challenging his second stepfather’s traditional notions of masculinity by wearing nail varnish, getting invited to a girl’s party by another girl who says her friend likes him… In-between these scenes, he and his sister visit or are visited by their fun-loving middle-class liberal father (Ethan Hawke), who makes a point of treating his kids as equals and making his relationship with them as honest and open as can be.
While many of these scenes such as the aforementioned one create the expectance of a follow-up within the viewer’s mind, most of them are self-contained and devoid of narrative consequences. Linklater is not interested in a narrative journey but in seizing what Rob Thomas would call the “little wonders” that make life remarkable, which is where the film falls short in many ways.
Setting aside the natural thematic restrictions that come with using the life of a white middle-class American boy to represent what it means to grow up, the film’s episodic nature requires a certain capacity from its filmmaker to turn mundane situations into revelatory events and thus use his character as a mirror to show ourselves in a fresh new light. Regrettably, it is not until Mason reaches adolescence that this occurs in a regular and satisfactory manner. For much of Mason’s childhood, we see things happening – he and a friend marveling at the existence of breasts in a lingerie catalogue; his sister protesting when their mother announces their plans to move – but with little insight into the characters’ behaviour and actions. Things just happen, and we move on to the next scene. The most compelling aspect of this part of the film comes from the adults more than the children, particularly the mother’s new husband (Marco Perella), a seemingly-friendly college professor whose abusive nature is revealed progressively and insidiously: Casual remarks directed toward his son during dinner at a restaurant or at a golf course, passive-aggressive chastising of his wife’s children for not completing their tasks on time and of his wife for not supporting him enough… These scenes act like layers being peeled off to culminate in the revelation of his terrifying true nature, as the children come home one morning to find their mother crying on the floor as her husband explains that she “had an accident”. The most frightening thing about Marco Perella’s performance is how ordinary it is: He doesn’t try to otherize his character by making him a Jack Torrance-like monster. Linklater’s on-the-surface approach proves most effective here, as Perella can only rely on himself to make his character feel like a human being rather than just a shallow representation of domestic violence. His alcoholic stepdad is cruel and selfish, but there is something almost childlike behind his eyes, some sort of desperate need to prove control and manhood.
Once the film dives into Mason’s teenage years, it gains in astuteness and sensibility, and it is not hard to draw parallels between Mason’s growth as a human being and Linklater’s own growth as a filmmaker. He films his star, a naturally fascinating Ellar Coltrane, with more attention to how he reacts to other people and situations. With little need for dialogue – though conversations also gain in depth – Linklater successfully condenses and conveys the moods and tonal shifts Mason goes through in every scene, whether it’s getting a hunting rifle and a bible from his father’s new girlfriend’s parents for his birthday or seeing his father embarrass his sister by urging her to wear condoms with her boyfriend so as not to become a parent before she’s ready to do so like her parents did. The scenes are filmed and scripted with the tried-and-true know-how of a mainstream Hollywood veteran, yet they never feel as flat as some of the earlier scenes did, nor do they smack of artificiality.
“Boyhood” does not possess the same bittersweet acuity as François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel saga did – save for the execrable clip-show finale “Love On The Run” – nor does it isolate special fragments of life with the simple grace demonstrated by Terrence Malick in “The Tree Of Life” and “To The Wonder”. But what it occasionally lacks in profundity, it makes up for in heart. It manages to go beyond the novelty of its concept to indirectly illustrate a filmmaker’s developing maturity as both an artist and a person. You may not come out of it having learned a great deal about life than you already knew, but you will come out having gotten to know an interesting person you may find yourself hoping to meet again someday, in another film.