Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Thoughts on "Boyhood": Does Its Intriguing Creative Hook Make It a Great Film?

Courtesy of The New York Times
Boyhood is one strange beast of a movie. I've never seen film critics so unanimous in their praise of one film, while the public seems to be unanimously divided. Love it or hate it? I'm going with neither. After having a night to sleep on it and a morning to mull it over, I'd place my feelings for Boyhood somewhere in the middle, definitely a little farther to the left, closer to the L word.

I wouldn't say it's overrated because that would imply that I didn't like it. I did like it, and it's easy to understand why it's inspired such a critical lovefest. I just can't count myself among its breathless admirers.

The Oscar buzz couldn't have happened to a more deserving director, though. Richard Linklater is one of the best directors working today, and it's about time he got his due. The Best Director Oscar is his to lose...and he won't. I'm in awe of how he managed to keep the cast together during what was essentially a 12-year shoot while keeping his artistic vision intact, making the finished product look seamless from beginning to end. It's like Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight as one movie without the decade-long gaps.

The way Linklater crosses indie attitude with mainstream conventions reminds me of Alexander Payne (the sequences with the God-fearing gun-toting grandparents were like something straight out of Nebraska, my favorite film of 2013) -- and he's got excellent taste in music! I loved the part near the beginning where the intro to The Hives' "Hate to Say I Told You So" plays on a loop. I think Linklater's directorial efforts with Before Sunset and Before Midnight were just as deserving of Oscar buzz as Boyhood, but better late than never.

That also goes for Patricia Arquette, the presumed Best Supporting Actress frontrunner. Despite her Emmy for her TV work on Medium, she's been woefully underrated and undervalued since her initial burst of early '90s success. Hopefully, the truckload of critics prizes will result in more interesting film work for the future star of TV's CSI: Cyber.

Let's start with a Boyhood 2, perhaps, that doesn't so closely reflect the title. I'm actually secretly hoping that Linklater filmed another movie where we get to see what's going on with her character when she isn't onscreen in Boyhood. I loved the subtle way that Linklater telegraphs the abusiveness of her second and third husbands (Never trust a guy who tells you all of his war stories before your first date) and hints at the possibility of abuse at her first husband's hands while ultimately showing him to be a flawed but pretty fantastic guy. More, please.

And then there's Ethan Hawke (as said first husband), another great undersung actor, one who has never been held in the same critical regard as peers like Matt Damon, Matthew McConaughey and Jude Law. I think his is the best performance in Boyhood, despite it being perhaps the trickiest one. Mason Sr. is undependable, a frequently absent dad, but Hawke actually makes me sort of wish my own dad, who was far from undependable or absent, had been more like him.

The one-on-one scenes with Mason Sr. and Mason Jr. are among the film's best. It's a bit cliche to say this about a great performance, but Hawke really doesn't seem to be acting at all. He simply is Mason Sr. I'd actually say that for all of the principal cast and the characters they play. That might be the biggest creative benefit of filming one movie over the course of a dozen years. The actors live with their characters for so long that at some point, the two almost become one.

Here, however, is my million-dollar question: Are Boyhood's rapturous reviewers so enthralled by the film because of the way in which it was made? After all, who shoots a movie over the course of 12 years, allowing the characters and the actors portraying them to age naturally? It's a pretty revolutionary idea in this particular medium, and as one of my friends pointed out, it made the characters seems more like a real family.

But anyone who has ever turned on a TV well knows, TV shows have been doing this for many decades. So we watched the Bradys and the Huxtables and the Keatons age naturally over the course of years rather than two hours and 45 minutes, but in reality, it's really not such an original and mesmerizing storytelling device that, well, storytelling can be thrown completely out the window.

And that's where Boyhood, for me, falters. I have nothing against the vignette style of storytelling. But if you are going to demand nearly three hours of my attention and not offer a defined storyline, you at least need to give me an interesting central character to give a damn about. Sadly, that wouldn't be Mason Jr. I wanted him to resent his mother for exposing him to such abusive stepfathers or become the class clown to hide his sadness or the class bully to hide his fear, anything to make him worth three hours of my attention.

Another friend suggested that it's Mason's very ordinariness that makes Boyhood great. Gimmicky kids, after all, have been done to death. But a protagonist, even an underage one, need not be gimmicky to be interesting. While I was watching Boyhood, I kept thinking of the TV series Weeds, imagining Mary Louise-Parker in a more minor role (a la Patricia Arquette in Boyhood) and her second son in the central role. I would have loved the series so much more.

Mason, alas, is no Shane Botwin. Though he's nicely played by Ellar Coltrane, Mason just isn't a vivid enough character to justify spending nearly three hours mostly on him. And while I appreciate my friend's take on what made Boyhood great for her, I can't cosign. Ordinary simply has no place in entertainment. Yes, Mason is a realistic character, like a kid we'd meet in everyday life. Would that have been enough to keep the movie's breathless fans invested had Boyhood been filmed in the usual three or so months and had different lookalike actors been used to portray Mason at different ages?

We turn to TV and movies to see extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, and in the absence of extraordinary, they've got to be interesting. If I want "slice of life," I don't have to go to the cinema to get it. We're surrounded by ordinary every day of our lives. Does it become artistic, or great, just because it's tied to a cool concept? (P.S. See Payne's Nebraska for "slice of life" elevated by two interesting yet non-flashy leading characters.)

Don't get me wrong: I think Boyhood is a good movie. I just wish its extraordinariness didn't depend so much on the 12 years that the cast and crew spent making it.

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