There’s no denying that Boyhood is an impressive feat in filmmaking. Filmed over twelve years with the same cast of actors, director Richard Linklater and everyone else involved in the production has demonstrated an intense amount of commitment and perseverance. However, I feel that that acknowledgment does not make this film an automatic contender for being the best of the year, despite all the awards and nominations piling up in its favor. It is practically a miracle that the film is even coherent, let alone a good film on top of it, but aside from the technical achievement, what does Boyhood do that other coming-of-age stories haven’t already done with more comprehensive character arcs and tighter plotlines?
It’s hard to describe the plot of Boyhood, as this could just as easily be called The Life of Some Kid: The Movie. Starting at age six, the film follows Mason Evans as he stumbles his way to adulthood, showing his connection to an irresponsible father, his witnessing of his mother’s abuse at the hands of his stepfather, his rebellious early teenage years, and finally his flight from the nest toward college and adulthood. Each of these scenes feels about as naturalistic and real as possible, partially because the script has a slightly improvisational tone as Linklater accounts for how the world has changed over the years, and partially because the characters feel like real people that we as the audience have come to know and love. The illusion is particularly strong with Mason, because even when he’s being an ignorant entitled brat, it's easy to understand that from a grander perspective that is just part of the process of growing up.
That’s what this film does best: it creates a perspective on the passage of time and how people change. It uses musical cues to signal chronological transitions, pulling from the indie rock hits of consecutive years in the 2000s and showing the progression of technology to place us in a nostalgic haze for times gone by. This is particularly effective in portraying the process of childhood, for as we see the present come racing toward us, we also see Mason coming to join the ranks of adulthood, and our nostalgia for times past gets translated into a nostalgia for our own childhoods.
Unfortunately, this has a side effect of making Mason little more than a cypher, allowing us to project our own remembrances onto his life. Sure, he has some modicum of personality, loosely defined by his childhood interests and a burgeoning artistic passion for photography in his later teenage years, but the details aren’t as important as our relationship to his chronistic position in life. The details of his life may not particularly mirror our own, but Linklater makes these situations relatable enough so that we as the audience could easily see ourselves in Mason’s shoes. But this makes the story itself little more than a shallow interconnection of vaguely related scenes, with the characters themselves acting as little more than archetypes for us to relate to our own friends and family.
Now, that isn’t to say that Boyhood is a bad film; far from it, it is quite entertaining and very good at what it sets out to do. However, what it does is emotionally manipulate the audience into feeling nostalgic for no other reason than nostalgia’s sake. Yes, childhood can be a trying and emotional experience, but most of us remember that about our own childhoods without having a realistic fiction telling us in the most blatant ways possible. If you’re looking for a long-ish indie film to eat up an afternoon, you can do far worse than Boyhood. Just don’t expect to be seeing the best picture of the year.
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