Friday, April 10, 2015

At the Movies: "Boyhood"

Richard Linklater, 2014.

imbd: #197 (8.1)
     (March 1, 2015: #176, 8.1)
Ebert: Never got to see it.
Rotten Tomatoes: 98%(!) Fresh
Provenance: Watched on DVD with Mrs.5000.

Making a movie about childhood over a twelve-year shooting schedule, so that the characters can be played by the same actors from age six to age eighteen, is a pretty neat idea. The product couldn't help but be interesting. The director, Richard Linklater, is the reigning king of bringing pretty neat film ideas to fruition, with the militantly anti-narrative 1991 Slacker and 2001's animated festival of deep-thinkin' conversation Waking Life under his belt along with a portfolio of more accessible but still critically respected films.

The critical consensus is pretty much unanimous that Boyhood is a masterpiece of the first order. Well, it is at least a well-made realization of a novel concept. Since the staggering economic stakes of filmmaking usually stifle anything like experimentation, a successful film that tries out a new way of doing things is something of a gift. The principal adult actors, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, are terrific. There are some very moving scenes. The audio-visual review of the last dozen years is fun too, for the nonce, although ten years hence everything here will just look indistinguishably "old."

The main problem with making a movie that follows children slowly into adulthood is that you have to pick your kids, cross your fingers, and hope to hell that they grow up to be actual actors. Linklater was fairly lucky in this regard, with one of his two child actors -- his own daughter, in fact -- holding her own on screen throughout. But this movie isn't called Girlhood, it's called Boyhood, and the kid playing the boy, after a brief hopeful spurt of animation around age 11, turns out to be a block of wood in late adolescence.

"I feel like there are a lot of kids in real life," observed Mrs.5000, "and perhaps especially a lot of boys, who have trouble experiencing and projecting a full range of emotion."

"That's very true," I rejoined. "But that doesn't mean that I want to watch them having that trouble for three and a half hours."

To be fair, Boyhood is not really 3 1/2 hours long. It is only 2 3/4 hours long.

The strength of Boyhood is that it tries out new ways of capturing the real experience of life on film. One thing I admire about it, for instance, is that it breaks the strong taboo against thinking of childhood as other than innocent and idyllic; it portrays childhood, accurately, as a fairly awful experience. In other ways, too, the movie is more like actual experience than like most of our stories. As in real life, people who seem important suddenly disappear and are never heard from again. As in real life, a gun can make an appearance but never go off in the third act. Dramatic crises are reached, which then prove not to have been particularly important. The verisimilitude is great, as far as it goes. You could use it in an anthropology class to teach some of the lifeways of middle-class American white people.

Yet all of this rejection of the dramatic conventions, for all of its honesty and value, also helps you understand why we have the dramatic conventions. The reason is, they make for interesting stories. Whereas Boyhood, while it is innovative, interesting, and honest, and made with great skill and attention, is also pretty boring stuff. It's a long twelve years, this boyhood. Fewer scenes of people driving down the road might have helped. It's bracing, in a way, to have characters suddenly disappear from the narrative just people do in real life, but since those characters were interesting, and had their own story arcs, and were much better acted than the star of the show, I often found myself wishing we had stuck with their lives, instead.

Plot: A kid in Texas grows up.  His mom works hard but has bad luck with husbands.  His dad is an ineffectually benign presence; we see him proportionately onscreen an awful lot more than the kid does in real life.  Sometimes the kid seems like he's turning out kind of cool, sometimes he seems like he's kind of a jerk.  It's hard to say.

Visuals: Lot of pretty shots of Texas towns, roads, and homes.  Perhaps too many, as this film does not exactly move at a brisk pace.  There are occasional scenes shot more or less like home movies, as for example when the children dress up for one of the Harry Potter book releases.  These blur the line between film and personal documentary, and are rather charming for that.

Dialogue: Pretty well crafted to seem like the natural language that these characters would speak, and maybe to even be the natural language that these characters would speak.

Prognosis: A highly successful and worthy experiment in movie-making, and a very watchable if somewhat slow-moving entertainment

Michael 5000's imdb rating: 7.


Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

My mom keeps telling me to see this one. She's been right about everything else ever, so I need to go see it and compare notes with her and Mr. 5000.

gl. said...

yes, i really liked this but primarily because it was original and i am just SO HAPPY to see something vaguely original. but yeah, that kid was sort of a clod and the ending made me roll my eyes. but i did not regret watching it.

Michael5000 said...

I certainly don't regret watching it. That would be somewhere down around 1 or 2, and I'm giving this one a big ol' 7.

Odd problem with ending encountered only by people who are both geography buffs and work in college counseling: the kid decides to go to Sul Ross State. SUL ROSS STATE DOESN'T HAVE A PHOTOGRAPHY PROGRAM!! I looked it up!

gl. said...

YOU LOOKED IT UP. of course you did.

mhwitt said...

My adoration of this movie was less qualfied. The wooden manner of the boy in adolescence made him recognizable as a certain kind of serious and brooding teenage boy, and was not annoying to me. I side with Mrs5000 there.

I did think there was perhaps a bit much preachy advice in some of the dialogue. Dad had more of it than Mom, but he was a part time parent so was trying to make the most of his days with his children. I imagined he sought to assuage his guilt for high tailing it when the kids were young, so I let that slide. But do I remember correctly that the high school photography teacher has only one scene and 80% of the words come in a single line which, as I remember it, seemed like the kind of speech he would have to rehearse or recite from a teleprompter.

Yes, a bit of judicious editing could have given it a brisker pace. But the pace was also part of the charm, giving it the meandering quality that everyday life sometimes has.

I left this movie with a mildly sore face from grinning so much.

Michael5000 said...

Thanks for checking in, mhwitt! A face sore from grinning is a fine recommendation.

When I think of Boyhood these days, I am almost always remembering about vividly realized secondary characters: the father's second wife and her family, who I found quite charming, or the mother's alcoholic second husband, who is such a train wreck. (Whatever happened to him? Did he get into twelve-step and get his shit together? I guess we'll never know... unless Linklater is making another film about him, that will contain overlapping footage during the Boyhood chapter of his life. Wouldn't put it past him.