Movie Review: Boyhood
This is it. Boyhood is the last movie on my list before I can make my predictions for the 2014 Academy Awards ceremony. And my God, the horror! I have sat through some awful films this year, and I have been disappointed by films that promised way more than they delivered (despite delivering a fairly decent product.) But this film! This film! I have rarely, if ever, been so confused by the difference between a film’s critical hype and actual experience. If you want to save 5 minutes of your life, and 5 dollars of your money, here is the short and dirty: this film is a complete wreck. If you want to wallow in the mud, follow me down the rabbit hole of disappointment.
Boyhood follows the non-adventures of Mason Evans Jr., his sister Samantha, his divorced mother (and complete trainwreck) Olivia(Patricia Arquette), and his phone-it-in father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke.) Covering a time period that is stated to be 12 years, but feels more like a million, this film attempts to capture the trials and tribulations of growing up in America during a period of time when none of the significant events that happen would remotely effect a very young child of relative privilege, despite this film desperately insinuating that current events in some way impinged upon the life of a minor. Along the way, Mason Jr. is barely affected by the constant boyfriend issues of his mother, a snotty older sister, and stuff. Mostly stuff that implies that a pre-teen is obsessed with sex. Eventually Mason gets every break in the universe, experiences meaningful relationships against all odds, and achieves potential greatness despite not ever applying himself to anything. Yay, white privilege!
What You Gain…What You Lose.
Much has been made of Boyhood using the same cast over a period of 12 years of filming. That is a bold and inventive technique…that has absolutely no discernible benefit. We start the film with two completely unready actors in Mason and Samantha (who is the director’s daughter, so fuck you for nepotism, Richard Linklatter!) They are completely unwatchable. Jake Lloyd from The Phantom Menace levels of insufferable child actors. As they grow, they continue to be complete liabilities in terms of acting ability…despite this film having some of the worst performances from “professional” actors I have ever witnessed. When you can under-act the director’s 8 year old daughter, I can’t imagine how the hell you made it past the screening process.
This is not Cinema Verite. This is not even a mocumentary. The events are all scripted, the cast are all “actors.” There is no upside to using children and amateurs. A trick like this would be a cerebral and innovative twist for a film student’s master thesis. Sadly, that thesis would be a much better artistic use of this technique. The timeline of the film is so completely negligible that the movie has to club you over the head with cultural references to even make the passage of time apparent.
Forrest Gump in Reverse
The progression of time is so completely arbitrary that the director has to cue you into time changes through cringe-worthy cultural references. You can tell how old Mason is, relatively, by which Nintendo product he is playing. I don’t know how much Nintendo made for each ham-fisted product placement in this film, but fuck them and this film for it. Enjoy that money in hell, you bastards. On top of product placements (of which many, many, many exist) you get additional musical cues, in the way of top-20’s pop songs from each year. Casey Kasem could not cue up a more revolting play list of forgettable music. Add to this that the female children in this film exist mostly to sing awful renditions of hits in order to hammer this point home, and you get a soundtrack forged in hell by whatever slimy devil this film had to pander to to get more than a decade’s worth of funding.
The passage of time would perhaps have been more noticeable had the director not chosen to film in such generic sets that present no indication of what decade they exist in, or had he not also surrounded the main character, a floppy haired blond cipher, with…a cast filled completely with floppy haired blond ciphers! Holy shit! Every time they cut to a new time period, we get an establishing shot of an older tow-headed child…who is not the main character! I try to establish how much time has passed based on this nameless idiot, and suddenly there is Mason…looking nearly identical to how we just left him. I know the kid is not going to age leaps and bounds, but stop jerking me around by showing random kids who differ from the main character only by age.
Boyhood feels like the inversion of Forrest Gump, or even like a lazy sequel, Lil Forrest. Here we follow Gump’s progeny as he is thrust through cultural milestones miles over his head, affecting him not the slightest, and affecting the plot even less, but we get event after event after even after event…just because the movie’s time dilation is completely unworkable and the director wants to beat us over the skull with the fact that THIS MOVIE TOOK 12 YEARS TO MAKE YOU GUYS!
So they go to great lengths to make obvious references to the events surrounding this film culturally. Does it matter. Not a bit. Ethan Hawke gives a pathetic attempt to indict Bush for the Iraq War…while talking to 8 year-old kids in a bowling alley. The kids are seen placing Obama for President signs for their dad…for no reason besides showing that Obama existed during the time period of this movie. Boyhood is the equivalent of those humor articles that plagued the inter-net a few years ago that were basically “Hey, remember when X was a thing!? Yeah…us too.” That’s not a cultural insight. That’s the set up for a joke or an actual observation. But that would require some level of insight or talent for humor…so nope, we just get the set up, with no punchline.
Stop! The People!
OK, the central gimmick of following a fictional character through actual chronological progression is a total failure. How is the actual story of the film? Dreadful.
The characters who populate this film are the thinnest, most threadbare stereotypes to grace the screen in decades. The plucky mom who sacrifices to raise her children has been done a billion times before, in much better fashion. Patricia Arquette seems constantly listless and lifeless, hardly registering what could be called a performance. Sally Field from Forrest Gump, and even the enervating Renee Zellweger from Jerry McGuire (one of the shittiest films ever made) manage to convey this standard movie trope light-years better than Arquette. The young actors are terrible. The string of asshole boyfriends that Arquette acquires are such flimsy cliches, they even manage to fuck up playing believable jerks. Ethan Hawke seems to be channeling Tom Cruise here, manically chewing the scenery and over acting every (small) chance he gets to be on screen.
The plot is an aimless mess. Great and Important (Trademark) events happen around this family…but nobody is never given any chance to react to or internalize them. The plot just careens crazily from one hackneyed life event to the next. Single parenting, abusive relationships, social upheaval, constant relocations, bullying, deviant acting-out, sex, drugs, rock and roll…all of these things happen and have zero amount of reflection dedicated to them. The film itself jumps from event to event like someone suffering from ADD. If you took thirty seconds each from the top 10 You-Tube videos trending right now, they would make a more coherent plot line.
Stop Wasting My Time
The end result of this amateurish experiment in film editing is a story that lacks coherence or relevance and that creates terrible performances to advance a trite plot. You might argue that life is actually like this. Things happen. People around you are shallow and stupid and react poorly. You fail to learn anything from monumental events, and the best and brightest fail while the lucky thrive. Had this been the thesis of the film, I would have applauded its frank admission that talent, skill, drive, or ability matter so little in the grand scheme of things. But Boyhood wants you to care. Wants you to see this pastiche of poorly acted dolls flailing around in a barely recognizable simulacrum of real life and care. Screw you. I got problems. Trying to work up the emotion to care about your botched film school exercise ain’t one of them.