To say Richard Linklater’s newest film “Boyhood” relies on a gimmick seems unfair, yet it seems to be the conclusion I keep returning to two days after watching the movie.
For those unfamiliar, “Boyhood” is a remarkable film because of the production process, which began in 2002 and filmed the same actors growing up over the course of a dozen years. The boy whose “hood” is in question is played by Ellar Coltrane, who was cast when he was in first grade and is now almost 20 years old. The stars aligned and this kid turned out to be a not half bad performer, nor did Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, who plays the boy’s older sister. Their actors playing their parents are unsurprisingly good performers, as they are Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette.
Don’t get me wrong, the performances are great, the conceit is interesting, and the film’s episodes as the boy ages are often poignant, compelling, and beautifully shot. But when I think about the movie, trying to separate the conceit from the other elements of the film that I use to evaluate whether or not I like a movie proved basically impossible.
In fact, some of the most enjoyable parts of “Boyhood” for me came after the movie was over. The extratextual elements (read: things about the movie that aren’t in the movie, such as reviews, the poster, the trailer, interviews with cast and crew, etc) are fascinating, and I found myself reading tons of interviews with Linklater, learning about stories from the set, how the screenplay was crafted chunks at a time, changing based on Coltrane’s own experiences and what kind of kid he grew up to be, and how the little Linklater at one point wanted to quit the movie.
It is not unusual that these elements can enhance a film experience, but I am always one who likes to believe that a truly great movie does not need this boost from the outside to be worthwhile. As soon as the credits rolled on “Boyhood”, my friends and I immediately started to discuss questions we wanted answers to, articles we had read, and how it seemed like our movie viewing experience wouldn’t be finished without more info.
Being a purist, this is not something I champion as a good thing, necessarily. Sure, it isn’t a bad thing, but can you really say you’ve made a good movie if I need to know the production history in order to fully appreciate it? If I walked in and didn’t know it was the same boy and girl and just assumed it was an instance of remarkably good work casting different actors, would I still like this movie as much as I do knowing it is the same people?
While I can’t answer a lot of my lingering questions about “Boyhood”, I can say the answer to that last question is a resounding no. This is a lovely coming of age story, but some of the plot developments are rather clunkily telegraphed (Arquette’s romantic conquests are a prime example). You can also tell Linklater was trying to leave things pretty open in the second act since he wasn’t quite sure what kind of teenager Coltrane would grow up to be, resulting in some scenes that feel a little too meandering for my tastes.
I think, for many devotees of Linklater, the mere act of pulling off this 12-year project makes this movie a masterpiece. I will give him this: the movie is a unique experiment and deserves accolades for pulling it off at all, let alone pulling it off with a movie that works on many levels.
But those of you who trumpet this thing as a masterpiece just because of the conceit are the same folks who won’t watch “Citizen Kane” because it is dated. Guess what though? This movie gets the accolades it does for many of the same reasons “Boyhood” does–because it did things first. The cinematography of Kane remains influential fifty plus years later and the film deserves recognition for that. The overall impression of Kane as a film, independent of the extratextual elements, is slowly waning though. I’ll admit, it is kind of long and hits the same beats a lot. Kinda like “Boyhood”…
So, after all that, I still don’t really know how to evaluate how much “Boyhood” succeeds. Perhaps I am being a contrarian, but the universal acclaim for this movie surprises me a little. Richard Roeper claims it is one of the best film ever made, while The Guardian suggests it is one of the best movies of the decade. Maybe I am missing something, but, other than the gimmick, there is nothing particularly exceptional about this movie. Yes, the gimmick is exceptional, but in 20 years, will this movie still be as Earth-shattering to critics as it is now? I don’t think so, but I do think it will hold a rightful place in film history as a movie that took an incredibly difficult concept and pulled it off, getting us to reconsider what exactly movies are capable of accomplishing. That is something that deserves recognition, but I don’t know if it deserves to give the movie instant classic status or not.