There’s a moment in Richard Linklater‘s mildly diverting—though grossly overtouted—magnum opus Boyhood that aptly serves as the point of departure for my critical reaction to it. It’s photography class, and slacking high schooler Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is frittering around in the dark room instead of buckling down and honing his craft, a fact that his snitty teacher accosts him about. Sure, the guy’s a scruffy-bearded, sanctimonious pusbag, but even a douche can be right sometimes. To paraphrase: “Mason, you have great potential as a photographer, but lots of guys have that, and lots of others who are less talented are at least willing to put in the work. You need tremendous dedication and discipline to be an artist, coupled with a vision that sets you apart.” Like Mason, Linklater doesn’t seem to have seen the artistic light beyond the dark room where he developed this diffuse coming-of-age story that chronicles a boy’s development in real time over a 12-year period. The difference is that, unlike Mason’s instructor, audiences and critics have already lined up on both sides of the aisle demanding curtain calls and hailing Linklater as a visionary genius just because he came up with a novel idea for a rough draft.
Don’t get me wrong: I admire the attempt to bring realism to a medium currently polluted with endless series of caped superheros. Just as I’m glad to see more indie films receiving mainstream advertising campaigns (like Linklater’s previous film Before Midnight, Boyhood made it into the multiplexes). Not to mention that it’s a welcome relief—and increasingly rare these days—to encounter a director who’s able to approach sober subjects without resorting to politically correct messaging. The problem is, Linklater fails to find any unifying thread to tie together all the events in Mason’s life, no real intelligence to keep you reflecting on the big-picture meaning when the lights come back on. He just lets it all happen. Given that he filmed the scenes one at a time each year over a 12-year period, it can’t help but come off as a cobbled-together series of anecdotes that too matter-of-factly delineate a boy’s progression from relatively happy-go-lucky eight-year-old to disillusioned college student. Several parental divorces, failed puppy loves, and bong tokes later (well, more than several for the latter), Mason’s scarcely closer to finding himself. Nothing intrinsically wrong with that: life doesn’t tie together all the loose ends, yada yada. I just think that art needs to be more elevating and reflective; it needs do more than stay true to life and narrate an endless succession of work-a-day events. Boyhood constitutes little more than rambling vignettes, animated versions of the photos from a scrapbook or the scrawl from a diary.
A big part of the problem—and maybe this is partly my own personal bête noire, disconnected as I often feel from what I perceive as the amorphous cesspool of life in the 21st century—is how unrelatable almost all of the characters are. From the boy’s dipshit, trapped-in-adolescence father (Ethan Hawke) who treats parenthood as if it’s a game of beer pong between frat buddies. To the scraggly mother (Patricia Arquette) who moves from husband to husband with greater alacrity than a village whore. (True, two of her husbands turn out to be inveterate alcoholics, but this is why a woman should get to know her college professor a bit better before screwing him.) To Mason’s sister (Lorelei Linklater), his female counterpart in the transformation from overripe child to burnt-out teen. Along the way, there’s lots of stilted existential philosophizing about the meaning of life in typical Linklater fashion (witness the Before series). Linklater’s dialogue only rings true in the mouths of characters he knows best: druggie washouts of the type he depicted in Dazed and Confused. For me, the best quality of Boyhood, in fact, is its ironic sense of stoner-directed humor that Linklater injects from time to time. (Another, better film of Linklater’s, Bernie, excelled in that respect.) Whether it’s pimply teeny-boppers prevaricating about their sexual exploits while passing around a fatty in the basement. Or Mason’s hyper-uptight, and possibly repressed homosexual, manager at the diner where he works, who scampers around like a demented rodent in between offering Mason platitudinous words of wisdom about responsibility. Or the calculated jabs at George W. Bush and the wars in the Middle East, which, though they are most likely veiled left-wing propaganda, are nevertheless good for a modicum of comic relief. Yes, Linklater manages to conjure up enough witticism to induce a chuckle or two. Only I had a similar reaction to Half Baked, and, funny as it was, that one was critically panned and justly so.
It’s when the last puff is drawn, the smoke clears, and the mental haze disperses that one begins to wonder what exactly the fuss was all about. Linklater has cited the great Yazujiro Ozu and Carl Theodor Dreyer as two of his formative influences, and I can see some technical similarities in his frequent long taking a la Dreyer and his elliptical time-lapsing narrative in the manner of Ozu. What I fail to see, however, is a vision and experience that even remotely approaches the pathos or characterization of Tokyo Story or the sharp social criticism of Gertrud. No, to me, Boyhood is simply a slice of shallow modern life in all its depressing vicissitudes. It’s a movie that wants to be taken seriously because of the amount of time over which it was shot—as if long hours spent at the drawing board are a guarantee of greatness—and the manipulatively poignant nature of its subject matter. (Who doesn’t wax nostalgic for youth at some point in life?) In this case, I think so many have taken the bait of an idea and espoused it hook, line, and sinker as a chef d’oeuvre. To hear the over-the-top hyperbole (in which one critic unreflectively asserted that the film was “the best he’d ever seen”) about this one-step-above-mediocre film, you’d think Linklater had achieved something not seen since Lumiere invented the motion picture camera. Kenneth Turan—one of the few dissenting voices and a professional critic laudable for his willingness to go against the tides of public opinion when his observations about a film’s quality demand it—perceptively sums up what I, too, perceive as the overriding weakness of Boyhood (and of Linklater in general): “For me it was, at best, OK, a film whose animating idea is more interesting than its actual satisfactions . . . I have always been cool to Linklater’s films, have never connected emotionally to his self-involved characters and a slacker aesthetic that treats banalities as if they were words of wisdom.” Amen to that. Just as we shouldn’t treat ideas as if they automatically result in unprecedented masterpieces. And shouldn’t treat consensuses as if they represent truth.
Joe’s Grade: B-