Back to ‘Boyhood’: Great Film or Brilliant Gimmick?

Revisiting the 2014 Oscar winner (and loser) that took 12 years to make.

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Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood (Photo: IFC Films)

In a world where our taste in art often seems to be preordained by what critics and experts think, I don’t always love what they tell me to love. In fact, I rarely do. I still think The Irishman, Marriage Story, and Little Women were the most overrated movies of 2019.

Even more rarely do I love what the critics tell me to hate. Then along came Where’d You Go, Bernadette. I recently watched director Richard Linklater’s 2019 comedy-drama starring Cate Blanchett, and I spent much of its one-hour, 49-minute running time wondering why it flopped so hard with critics and moviegoers (Rotten Tomatoes rating: 48 percent, domestic gross: $9.2 million).

Considering the caliber of its cast (which also includes the generally underused Billy Crudup and Kristen Wiig in key roles), Linklater’s Oscar pedigree (which includes nominations for the Before Sunrise trilogy and Boyhood), and the movie’s brisk pace and crowd-pleaser of an ending, I can think of just one explanation: the source material. Unlike Little Women, which was based on a beloved novel from the century before the last one that many adults read and forgot years ago, if they read it at all, Bernadette had the misfortune of being an adaptation of a beloved, relatively recent (2012) novel still fresh in everyone’s mind.

I’ve never read Maria Semple’s Bernadette, so having no impossible standard to hold the movie to, I was able to judge it on its own merit. I loved it enough to want to seek out Semple’s book.

I certainly found it no less enjoyable than Boyhood, the 2014 film that earned six Oscar nominations, three of them for Linklater: Best Picture, Director, and Original Screenplay (all of which Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman won). Boyhood, though, had the good fortune of not being based on material from another medium and of having been filmed over a period of 12 years to capture its characters aging in real time. That extraordinary making-of narrative clinched its ooh factor before anyone even saw it.

Honestly, though, I preferred spending nearly two hours watching Blanchett’s Bernadette Fox unravel and become whole again to spending nearly three hours witnessing Boyhood’s Mason Evans Jr.’s evolution from a boy of six to a young man of 18.

At the time of Boyhood’s release, I couldn’t remember the last time I had seen film critics so unanimous in their praise of a film, while the public seemed to be so divided over it. Loved it or hated it? I’d place my feelings for Boyhood somewhere in the middle. It was the Marriage Story of 2014 — a decent watch that didn’t deserve all the superlatives critics threw at it.

Boyhood’s multiple Oscar nominations couldn’t have happened to a more deserving director, though. Richard Linklater was one of the best to emerge in the ’90s, and it was about time he got his due. It was pretty remarkable that he managed to keep the cast together during what was essentially a 12-year shoot while keeping his artistic vision intact. The finished product looks 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 aesthetics with mainstream storytelling conventions reminds me of Alexander Payne (the Boyhood sequences with the God-fearing gun-toting grandparents were like something straight out of Payne’s Nebraska, my favorite film of 2013) — and he’s got excellent taste in music. I loved the part near the beginning of Boyhood where the intro to The Hives’ “Hate to Say I Told You So” plays on a loop. Linklater’s Before Sunset, Before Midnight, and Bernie were equally deserving of Oscar’s attention in the top categories, but better late than never. (Right, Spike Lee?)

That went double for Boyhood’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar winner Patricia Arquette. Despite winning an Emmy for her TV work on Medium, at the time, she had been woefully underrated and undervalued since her initial burst of early ’90s success. I remember hoping the truckload of critics prizes she received for Boyhood would lead to more interesting film work. They didn’t, but she has steadily nabbed great TV roles and scored two Emmys to add to her first one for Medium.

I imagined her headlining Motherhood. What if Linklater had secretly filmed another movie where we got to see what was going on with her character when she wasn’t onscreen in Boyhood?

I loved the subtle way Linklater telegraphs the abusiveness of her Boyhood character’s 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 the hands of her first husband while ultimately showing him to be a flawed but pretty fantastic guy.

And then there was Boyhood’s other Oscar-nominated actor, Ethan Hawke (as the aforementioned first husband), another great undersung thespian giving one of his best performances, despite having the movie’s trickiest role. Mason Sr. is undependable and a frequently absent dad, but Hawke actually made 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 is Mason Sr. I can’t recall a single moment in the film where he seems to be acting. Too bad J. K. Simmons (who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar) had to give that undeniable and showy AF Whiplash performance the same year.

All of Boyhood’s central performances feel especially lived-in. That might be the biggest creative benefit of filming one movie over the course of a dozen years. The actors spend so much time with their characters that at some point, the two almost become one.

Were Boyhood’s rapturous reviewers so enthralled by the film because of the way in which it was made? Who shoots a movie over the course of 12 years, allowing the characters and the actors portraying them to age naturally?

Here, then, is my million-dollar question: Were Boyhood’s rapturous reviewers so enthralled by the film because it’s a modern masterpiece or because of the way in which it was made? Who shoots a movie over the course of 12 years, allowing the characters and the actors portraying them to age naturally? It was a pretty revolutionary idea at the time, and as one of my friends who loved the film pointed out, it made the characters seem more like a real family.

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

And that was where Boyhood, for me, faltered. I have nothing against the vignette style of storytelling. A coming-of-age movie without much of a plot needs a major minor to keep things interesting. (See last year’s Honey Boy, or Eighth Grade from the year before.)

Sadly, that wasn’t Mason Jr. I wanted him to resent his mother for exposing him to such abusive stepfathers or become the class clown to mask his sadness or the class bully to hide his fear, anything to make him worth nearly three hours of my attention.

Another friend who loved the movie suggested that it’s Mason Jr.’s very ordinariness that makes Boyhood great. Ordinary, however, need not be uninteresting. (Again, see Eighth Grade.) Mason Jr. is a realistic boy, like a kid we’ve all known, and Ella Coltrane plays him nicely. Still, he isn’t a vivid enough character to justify so much screen time, not with his far more fascinating parents hovering on the sidelines for most of the film.

Would the movie’s breathless fans have been as invested in Mason Jr.’s journey if Boyhood had been filmed in several months using different actors to portray him at different ages? Would it have been nearly as lauded as Moonlight, a similar coming-of-age movie that used a trio of actors to portray the protagonist at different life stages? Moonlight ended up winning the Best Picture Oscar two years after Boyhood lost it to Birdman.

Although it’s no Moonlight, Boyhood is by no means a bad film. It might have been a better one, though, if its value didn’t depend so heavily on the 12 years its director and cast spent making it.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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