Boyhood: Is it just me or…?

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For some reason the end of one year and the start of the next compels us to make lists of the best and worst of everything and anything imaginable. In film criticism the end of the year means an onslaught of top ten lists, and this year the film that seems to be granted a slot on more lists than any other is Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. The film has met with almost universal praise since its much buzzed about debut at the 2014 Sundance Film festival, with critics hailing it as a breakthrough in filmmaking practice and an emotionally resonant experience. It has now won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture Drama and its director was similarly honoured by the HFPA.

My reaction was somewhat different.

It’s a very strange experience not liking a movie that everyone else seems to think is a masterpiece, even if I do sometimes enjoy playing the iconoclast. The amalgam of certainty in my own opinion and the sneaking suspicion that I must have missed something can’t be entirely shaken off. One begins to question one’s sanity… or the sanity of everyone else.

I do not deny that the film is an achievement. The admittedly ground-breaking method of filming the same cast over twelve years so that the actors age with the characters they portray creates a sense of time and its progression in an innovative and fascinating way. Watching the main character Mason grow up, with his height, the shape of his face, his haircut, his sense of style changing every time the film skips ahead another year is an interesting new experience, like watching an extended time-lapse.

But that is not enough for me.

The only analogy I can think to draw is when a favourite TV show announces it’s going to do a “concept episode.” Next week’s episode is a musical! – or – It’s going to be shot entirely in first person because a documentary crew is following the characters around! Alright, that’s fine. Knock yourself out. But is it still a good episode? Does it still have a compelling story and characters?

The problem is that Boyhood is a good concept, not a good movie.

As my designated movie companion rightly pointed out, the issue lies mainly in the storytelling. Because of the nature of the concept that drives it, the film tells both one long story – the overarching narrative of Mason’s maturation, his experience of his boyhood – and a series of shorter stories at different intervals in that longer narrative. Since each of those shorter stories has little time to establish itself before the film moves on to another period in Mason’s life, they fall far too often into cliché: the first experience of death when Mason discovers a dead bird, the student falling for her professor, the son skipping stones across a lake with his father, the long walk through a cityscape made even more poignant by enjoying it with a first love, etc. etc. When Mason’s mother marries a college professor who quickly reveals himself to be an abusive alcoholic, the clichés tumble over one another and into fully-fledged melodrama.

I’m not suggesting that a moviegoer can’t recognize themselves or their children in any of these moments or in the overarching experience of growing up just because they have become cinematic clichés. Perhaps that is why the film held little interest for me, because it isn’t for me. Maybe Linklater’s film requires a close correspondence between its characters and its audience in order to be effective. At my tender age, having not raised any children, I don’t have the requisite experience to be reflected in the mirror Linklater is holding up for us to peer into. My sanity isn’t in question, just my life-experience.

Identification is a tricky matter, too tricky for me to fully explore here, but I have never been of the opinion that perfect correspondence is required to create it. If that were the case, this female, Jewish, Canadian, orphaned, twenty-something graduate student would have trouble finding a point of direct identification in film. That Boyhood can’t trigger memories that are not there should not be its downfall, however, since triggering remembrance is not the only way to hold an audience’s interest.

One of the four dissenting critics on Rotten Tomatoes similarly argues for something beyond recollection, since (presuming the requisite life experience) “it’s easy to watch the film and recall similar moments in your own life. That’s not enough; the film needs to inspire reflection, not just recollection.” To suggest that triggering reflection would have redeemed the film, however, falls into the critical trap of praising a film for noteworthy content and for a specific reaction that content should elicit – thought, the serious consideration of serious matters – over the manner in which that content is delivered. To repeat Roger Ebert’s famous maxim, “movies are not about what they’re about, they’re about how they’re about it,” and Boyhood does not go about what it’s about in a particularly compelling way.

The game of spotting the differences as the actors age grows tiresome without a compelling narrative to support it. As a result, I became increasingly frustrated by the odd mix of feeling like the concept offered something new while the actual execution was a series of dramatic moments I’d seen a million times before. In fact, my first reaction was something like, “as difficult and ambitious as that movie was, it was incredibly lazy.”

So, is it just me or…?

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