So I didn’t like Boyhood

Boyhood_posterAnd I know I am in a vastly overwhelmed minority on this one. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is one of the best-reviewed films of the year, a likely shoo-in for serious awards contention, and represents the kind of ambitious filmmaking American cinema needs more of. And yet, I didn’t like it. I didn’t hate it, but I did not enjoy this movie on any level other than the conceptual, and I’m actually really bummed out about it because I wanted to like it, so much. But I found it boring and unengaging, just a collection of “hey remember when” moments as opposed to actual introspection and exploration of what it means to grow up.

If you’re unfamiliar with Boyhood’s backstory, writer/director Richard Linklater spent twelve years making the movie. He cast Ellar Coltrane as a six year old, and then proceeded to shoot a few scenes a year over the next twelve years, cataloging Coltrane as he grew up playing “Mason”. As an artifact, it’s quite extraordinary, but as a narrative, it’s flat and uninteresting. Little of note happens to Mason, and while Coltrane turned out to be an okay actor, he isn’t particularly charismatic or compelling, so just the act of watching him on screen is not enough to make up for the lack of engaging story.

But that’s the point! Most people’s lives are boring and mundane and we all experience basically the same things in life! This movie is about how commonly common we all are! You missed the point, Sarah! Did I, though? Or is it just that the sheer scope of the undertaking is overwhelming and thus obscuring the realization that this is a three hour movie with no plot? You know what else is a three hour movie with no plot? Trans4mers.


While watching Boyhood I kept thinking about Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life (because I was horribly bored and had to find some way to stay awake). Tree of Life is also about a boy growing up and it also has little-to-no plot, and yet Tree of Life is not boring and though it doesn’t operate in a traditional narrative structure—which Boyhood more or less does—it succeeds in engaging the viewer by presenting a series of conflicts and questions that the audience can puzzle out for themselves. But Boyhood doesn’t ask us to reflect on our own experiences growing up and compare and contrast those personal recollections with the “normalized” experience playing out on screen. Instead it just presents us with a series of scenes that amount to nothing more than, “Hey remember when…?”

Remember iMacs?!

Also, THINGS ACTUALLY HAPPEN in Tree of Life. Sometimes the happenings are big, such as the moments when death intrudes, or little, as when a boy stands up to his father. But character interactions are rewarded in Tree of Life by having events built up and paid off, but none of the potential setups in Boyhood are rewarded. For example, the mom (Patricia Arquette) harps on buckling seat belts, but no car accident ever occurs. The most engaging scene in the movie is when Mason’s step-father is revealed to be an abusive asshole, but then the scene ends and that thread is completely dropped. Boyhood is just a collection of moments that go nowhere.

Remember when everyone had this asshole haircut?!
Remember when everyone had this asshole haircut?!

That’s life! Most of us never go anywhere or do anything of significance! True, but most of us also aren’t the main characters in a movie, which exists to tell a story. Tree of Life isn’t a traditional narrative but it does tell us a story about growing up through the lens of Nature vs. Nurture. The lens of Boyhood is limited to “nostalgia” and the story it tells is the very sameness we go to the movies to escape. I was frustrated and bored and mad at myself for not liking something I really wanted to like, but Boyhood is basically the cinematic version of a BuzzFeed listicle. 40 things everyone who’s ever grown up remembers!

33 thoughts on “So I didn’t like Boyhood

  1. ss2121

    “The most engaging scene in the movie is when Mason’s step-father is revealed to be an abusive asshole, but then the scene ends and that thread is completely dropped. Boyhood is just a collection of moments that go nowhere.”

    This was particularly interesting to me, because it’s the opposite of every other review I’ve read for this film. Most critics embraced the plotlessness and thought the stepdad story stuck out like a sore thumb. I do think the “collection of moments” vibe of the movie was quite intentional, just clearly not your bag. For me the joy in this one came from watching the kid grow up and relaxing into the familiarity of his adolescence. I liked that it felt like just watching someone’s life play out.

    1. I TRIED to embrace it. Maybe if it had been shorter and I hadn’t been asked to tolerate so much with no point, I could have.

      I think the “collective” style of the narrative was intentional, too, but it ultimately worked against the movie since there was nothing interesting to sustain me between moments. It was just like a hit parade of “and then that happened”. And yeah, I am divided on Linklater. I think he’s hugely talented, but more often than not, his work is not my bag. I don’t enjoy the “Before” movies for a lot of the same reasons I didn’t connect with Boyhood. I think that the sheer ambitiousness of the project has overshadowed everything this movie lacks, not unlike Gravity. Gravity has a shitty script, but it’s so technically marvelous no one cares (it also benefits from a strong central performance that is engaging enough to overcome the narrative weakness of the story, which Boyhood lacks). I’m super interested to see how Boyhood ages.

      1. Ryan Tungate

        Thank you, Sarah! I felt exactly the same. The thing is, I would have had NO problem with the ‘slice of life’ narrative IF we knew ANYTHING about Mason long term. I would think that having an abusive stepdad, even for awhile, would affect you in some way, but damned if I could tell you one single thing about the kid, apart from the fact that he ages. It’s funny… I keep remembering scenes from this movie, (ie the scene where he works in the dirty restaurant, the scene where he and the other kids play in that construction site) and it takes me a few minutes to remember that they were in ‘boyhood’. I think it’s because they never have any impact on the kid or his family’s life. Not only that, but I could take scenes that are just banal pieces of the kid’s life if they were interesting or entertaining. Sort of like ‘Slacker’, which had a similar structure. The thing is, those people were interesting, and I knew more about every one of them, despite almost none of them being in the movie for more than a scene, than I did after watching that kid for 3 hours. Another example? I knew more in the movie ‘Chef’ (a MUCH better film that I think has been criminally overlooked!) about the relationship between the kid and the dad in the first two lines than I did about boyhood after 3 hours. I can most certainly sit and watch character sketches and pieces of a ‘normal life’, but I think what happened here is that the sheer scope made the project a bit of a gamble, and for me, that gamble didn’t pay off. I think it’s pretty clear that early on, wih the ‘stepdad’ scene, they were going to actually show things that shaped the kid. I think at some point in 12 years,Linklater decided to swap out and have it be more like the best of his other films. After all, not a lot happens in ‘Dazed and Confused’ or ‘Before Sunrise’ in terms of big plot points. Unfortunately, those characters are interesting. I couldn’t tell you one thing about Mason other than the fact that he grows up. He seems to like photography, but does he love it? What are his goals (This is the first question you should be able to answer abut ANY lead character in a movie… ) I appreciate the ambition, but I was bored stiff by the film. Yet I’ve been told that by not liking it, I am only able to appreciate movies with explosions and big action plot points (I love Chef, Dazed and Confused, Slacker, so there goes that theory). I think what is happening is people are bringing themselves into the movie, and invest in the film emotionally even though nothing in it really does that work as a story. It’s much like a horror movie not doing anything scary, and hoping that your dogs happens to bark and scare you wile you’re watching it, and you claim it is one of the scariest films you’ve ever seen. I don’t like it either, and I think, as it moves to home video and netflix, the consensus will change. In five years, I’ll bet you that it occupies a place right above ‘Suburbia’ as Linklater’s 2nd worst film although it will probably win him a Best Director Oscar. This isn’t something that people will watch over and over and appreciate over the years.

  2. Brenda

    I was excited to go see the film based on the critical feedback.
    To get right to the point, the first hour and a half was mildly entertaining. Mildly. That was the high point. It dragged on and on and on. Boring and unnecessarily tedious. The guy I was with fell asleep. Forced myself to stay to the end. Couldn’t wait to leave and go have a drink.

  3. I loved it even though the only other Linklater movie I liked was Dazed and Confused. I think Boyhood took the best parts of Dazed and Confused, and in 12 years, made a high-concept, real-time aging movie that absolutely worked for me. I definitely thought it was over-hyped but a movie experience that never left me bored.

    Plus, I don’t think Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette have ever been better.

  4. Anna

    I don’t think I’ve ever disagreed with you so much, Sarah! I hated The Tree of Life. To me there was no plot and what I remember is dinosaurs and voiceovers and Sean Penn showing up randomly at times. I caught myself literally staring at the wall at times because I was so bored.

    Boyhood for me was about what are the moments that make you. For example, I love the scene when the kids went to the Harry Potter book release party because it was something I lived and that changed me too. It might be small or inconsequential, but if I look back to the summer of 2005, that’s what I remember too. I loved the plotness, how we were getting glimpses and moments of his life, because we essentially don’t remember the whole days/months/years, but the moments that meant something.

    I guess I just really love Linklater (the Before movies are some of my favourite ever) and hate Malick (I try to fit To the Wonder into conversations just so I can rant about it more), so we are basically at opposite ends. 😉 Great review, though! Interesting to see a negative perspective on Boyhood.

  5. Christina

    Yay, I’m glad I’m not the only one who wasn’t crazy about Boyhood! I thought it was boring and plotless as well and it worried me that it was SO critically acclaimed and yet I couldn’t wait for it to end. Sure it’s neat to see the kid grow up throughout the movie but that wasn’t enough for me.

  6. Diane Senffner

    I agree with everything you said. I thought I was watching a bad Lifetime movie with no plot. I appreciate the effort it took to create this, but it didn’t make a better movie. This slow drip almost killed me. I had to watch it to vote for the SAG awards – my least favorite viewing of the year.

  7. Michael

    Watched the first hour or so and thought it was pretty good. Took a break, made some spaghetti, came back for the rest. It felt as though the movie had all of a sudden unraveled into boring vignettes while I was away. The scene when the older boys were taunting the younger ones seemed wooden and none too credible. Ditto the teacher’s speech to Mason in the darkroom. And there were too many loose ends. What happened to alcoholic guy? What about Iraq guy? Did he fall into a black hole? Worst of all, Mason turned rather unpleasantly self-important. (Not untypical of 18 year olds I guess, but not very interesting either.) I got the feeling that I was supposed to applaud the fact that the “kids were all right” despite Mom’s three failed marriages. Perhaps the movie flatters people’s hopes for improbable happy endings.

  8. Lou Noto

    THANK GOD someone said it. Reading all the gushing reviews you’d think this movie was the next Citizen Kane. Well I watched it last night, and by the time the second hour began I wanted to turn it off. The only reason I didn’t was because I thought so many critics can’t be wrong. Well, they are, and I’m pretty sure history will say “what was everyone thinking, that movie was awful”.

    First of all, it’s boring. It’s that simple. The main character is jarringly awkward, and I don’t mean awkward like a teenager, I mean awkward like you can tell he has a camera in his face and is reciting a script. It becomes particularly pronounced in his teenage years when he paired with other young actors who CAN act and he is as wooden as board. This is one of the problems of casting a future adult actor at six years old, they probably won’t be all that great.

    You are 3000% right about the scenes being so disparate and not adding up to anything meaningful. I found The Sandlot to be a better coming-of-age movie that packed more an emotional wallop than Boyhood. By the end of The Sandlot I felt I had watched a little boy grow up, by the end of Boyhood I felt that I had watched a bunch of disconnected scenes that never registered on our character. He had an abusive step father, he went to ballgames with his dad, but how do these moments SHAPE him? You have a lot of memories, but in no way do these memories seem to impact our character.

    So what you have in the end is a boring movie, with a poor lead actor who is difficult to watch on screen, with no plot. And it’s three hours. And its supposed to be showing a boy grow up, but besides having the same actor ACTUALLY growing up there is no thread or connection which shows how these memories actually produced our young adult. Call me crazy, but I’d rather watch a movie that does not use the same actor over 12 years but actually encapsulates the moments which shape us and presents them in way which shows cause and effect.

    The only thing that did work in this movie were the parents. If it had been titled Parenthood, and focused more on mom and dad, this could have been a real winner. I DID have a sense of seeing the parents maturing, seeing scenes which shaped them and their lives turning as a result of those moments. Perhaps I never felt that for the boy because of the acting, or perhaps the script, but whatever the case may be I felt a connection with the parents and a sense of their journey infinitely more than the child.

    Anyway, I had to get that off my chest. I don’t know what Kool-Aid all the other critics are drinking but it should stop. This movie has no plot, poor acting, and no emotional heft due to how no scene is connected to what happened previously. But you know what, they USED THE SAME ACTORS FOR 12 YEARS! Amazing! Two thumbs, WAY UP.

    1. Ryan Tungate

      If they called it “Parenthood”, it would be the third best thing with that title…I agree with you in every possible way.

  9. You are not alone. Sarah and Lou mirror my thoughts exactly. I will add that some of the scenes were not well written–forced and/or hackneyed. Mason seemed detached, and with the number of homes and daddies him mom seemed to go through, it is no wonder. Poignant but no point. Oh, and does every male in Texas drink like a fish? and do all rural grandpas wear red flannel shirts and overalls and tote bibles and guns? I mean this blog is titled “Cinesnark!” 🙂

  10. Rick

    Your comments are so spot-on, Sarah. Glad to know I ‘m not the only viewer disappointed with “Boyhood” – I see the overall point of the film, but at it’s core it’s very much a bore.

  11. karen Sbriglio-Sztorc

    i like your commentary and agree whole heartedly (didn’t get the appeal of the Before movies either) have to be a saint to sit through them. i’d like your take on other movies now….

  12. I went to see this given the reviews it was receiving, and walked out 165 minutes later thinking the world was playing some kind of prank on me. I quite honestly hated almost every minute of this. I’m going to try to elaborate on why.

    The TL;DR summary of this is that it felt like going over to a neighbour’s house and watching 12 years worth of home movies, and then leaving while realizing you didn’t much like them anymore.

    It’s predictable – as soon as I saw Arquette’s character and her professor, what ran through my mind was OK, what’s the most cliched thing they could do with this? Oh, have them marry and he’ll turn out to be an abusive drunk asshole. Don’t get me wrong, no-one deserves an asshole, but right there any claims of originality I had been hearing went right out the door, especially when her NEXT guy also turned out to be a bit of a jerk. Ethan Hawke (whom, OK, I kinda liked at first) started as an easy-going pseudo-intellectual — gee, he hasn’t played THAT before :/ — who aged and became just as boring as everyone else. Which brings me to…

    Nothing of consequence happens – by which I mean, what exactly does Mason learn here? How does he change over the course of the film, besides physically? Yeah, the first stepfather was abusive to the mother, but what of him and his sister? He lets them go with their father even though their chores aren’t finished, and tells them they’ll finish when they get back — not unreasonable, and yet it’s presented that way — and he makes Mason get a haircut — wow, such a mean guy (that’s sarcasm). He misses curfew and the second dad chews him out mildly — while drinking — and Mason doesn’t seem to care but nothing happens. Near as I could tell, he’s the same from what little actual character he has he doesn’t — he’s the same bland person at the start as he is at the beginning, and none of his actions or inactions impacts that. When his girlfriend dumped him and called HIM an asshole I was agreeing with her and I don’t think i was supposed to.

    What’s with the mixed “drinking is bad” signals — our first sign that the professor is bad is he buys alcohol. Then the second father is drinking a beer while very passively chewing out Mason. The film seems to concentrate on the stepfathers drinking as a sign they’re assholes. Yet EVERYONE in this film drinks and yet only those two are focused on being the bad guys because of it. Why?

    The side stories we don’t see seem more interesting than the main one — How and why did Hawke decided to settle down? The landscaper who went to college at Arquette’s suggestion, he seems interesting, why couldn’t we follow that? No, we’re just going to watch this kid with no real personality instead? OK…

    The length — yeah, i get that covering twelve years this would be long, but why 165 minutes? I was completely checked out after 120 and yet it kept going. I was getting ready to leave when Mason got into his truck and drove off to college, but then there are TWO MORE SCENES at the college. WHY? His boyhood was clearly over when he drove off by himself for the first time (the only symbolism that kinda clicked when it happened — yay, one point). There was no reason for those last two scenes — none. Oh, wait, I found out later that girl was the same one who gave him a note saying he liked the haircut. That was 9-10 years before, and we had seen this girl for 30 seconds tops. We know nothing about her or these other characters he just met. I also can barely recognize my own younger cousins after 8 years, let alone a girl I barely saw.

    The idea is not really that original — there’s a bit of risk involved here, sure, that an actor will get hurt or die in the intervening time period, but really that’s kind of it. There’s nothing about growing up that isn’t covered in any long running TV series, and it’s actually better there because, as I mentioned previously, you get character development which Mason did not get. Aside from that shooting schedule, there’s nothing technically outstanding in the film — the cinematography and sound is fine, the editing is fine. I’m not saying they’re bad, but they just don’t stand out.

    So, yes, I unapologetically hate this film. I get that it’s a slice of life type film, and that some will get it and others won’t, but usually in these films I can see what others *might* connect to in the film if I don’t myself like it. Here, I honestly don’t see it, and every time someone has tried to explain WHY they liked it, it ends up being one of the points I hated about it.

    That this is winning the awards this season over, IMO, much more thoughtful, better acted, and well put together films such as Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, and Whiplash is upsetting me in ways it really shouldn’t given that these are just films.

    1. Hi Andrew, I know it’s two years after but I just saw the movie and I totally agree with you. Specially when you say:
      The idea is not really that original — there’s a bit of risk involved here, sure, that an actor will get hurt or die in the intervening time period, but really that’s kind of it. There’s nothing about growing up that isn’t covered in any long running TV series, and it’s actually better there because, as I mentioned previously, you get character development which Mason did not get. Aside from that shooting schedule, there’s nothing technically outstanding in the film — the cinematography and sound is fine, the editing is fine. I’m not saying they’re bad, but they just don’t stand out.

      I am watching the series Parenthood, and it’s not the best series ever, but while seeing the movie I thought to myself, it is actually not that original as an idea. You see this in any long running TV series. They have to cope with actors being little kids and growing up and turning them into actors.
      Don’t get me wrong, I liked the idea.. but it just wasn’t enough.

  13. Janet

    Sara, thank you so much for writing this review. I know it easy to go against the grain. I watched this movie and thought I missed something especially when I read the reviews after watching the movie. Even Rotten Tomatoes gave it a high rating and I usually agree with them. I have been racking my brain trying to figure out what I missed but after reading your review it makes sense to me: I don’t like it either; no wonder I fell asleep and then watched it the next morning scratching my head.

  14. Phil

    I, too,thank you, Sarah. I had to search too hard to find a website that declared “the emperor has no clothes.” My hope (and fear) is that the raving reviews represent critic group-think gone viral. Mostly fear, though, because it’s scary that they all think this movie is great art.

    1. I do think it has a lot of value as an experiment and an artifact. And the technical accomplishment of making it–consider how much film technology changed over those 12 years. It’s not without value, it’s just not, as a narrative, nearly as good as the hype. If everyone didn’t know the making of story, I don’t think it would be discussed in the same way at all.

      Also, the Honest Trailer people didn’t care for it, either.

      1. Ryan Tungate


        Again, thanks. This is EXACTLY the way I feel about it. I have HUGE respect for Linklater for even trying this, and can grade him on a curve for the sheer ambition.Given how hard this must have been to even try and pull off, he should be congratulated for getting a finished film out of it. But whenever I get told I’m some kind of cretin for thinking it was a badly written and boring film, it makes me dislike it just a bit more. There was another article I read that said you could literally remove any scene from this film and not have it affect the narrative in any way. Name me another film, even one about ‘banal slices of life’, where you can do that? ‘La Dolce Vita’? ‘Lost in Translation’? ‘Short Cuts’? The only other films I can think of are some of Linklater’s earlier efforts. Sure, you could take some of the stuff out of ‘Dazed and Confused’ and still have a coherent plot, but all of those characters have an arc, and damn… that’s just a fun movie to watch. Why the didn’t try and make these people interesting is something I don’ get, given that ‘Mason’ is just as much of an invention as ‘Wooderson’ or ‘Randall “Pink” Floyd’. Yet I would MUCH rather watch a film about any of the characters in ‘Dazed and Confused’ or ‘Slacker’, who, again, ostensibly do nothing (In Slacker, that was kind of the point) than this movie. I just didn’t find it engaging. I kept seeing, like you did, “Oh yeah, that’s what Macs looked like back then” or “Oh yeah, that song was big back then”. I think Mason might be the problem. He’s a little formless… Maybe the fact that I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life when I was 13 is the issue. I never had the whole ‘trying to figure out what drives me’ problem that he seems to be struggling with. The fact is that, apart from growing up, I can’t tell you anything of significance the kid does. Hats off to Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette for being solid, and for not aging for 12 years. But it didn’t work for me. Say you don’t like ‘Citizen Kane’ or ‘Apocalypse Now’ and everybody’s like “Yeah. Okay” Say you don’t like ‘Boyhood’ and everyone pillories you as some kind of nincampoop. I’m glad you took this stand, and I’ right there with you…

  15. sally potapenko

    Today is Oscar night and all I have heard is boyhood. Rented it a few weeks ago and have,t been that bored in a long time. I guess I was expecting something totally different. Have read other comments and couldn’t agree more. I didn’t remember Ethan Hawke, that’s how bored I was. Glad to have a fast forward button so I could skip to the end. After it was over all O could think was ” why did I waste 3 hours. Cleaning my house would have been more entertaining.

  16. rp421

    So I’m not the only one!!! I really wanted to like this movie but I admit how much I hate it. The most obnoxious, possibly untended message I gleaned from this movie: Your moment of wisdom, potential and brilliance come right before you have to start making decisions about your life. But if you are over 40 and god forbid, a parent, your life is over, you are a waste of space. Really? People can’t reinvent themselves at any age or stage in life?

    Aside from this, I really didn’t like any of the characters. I typically am pro-Ethan-Hawke..not here. Bad irresponsible dad but cool dad = good dad? Nope. I really hated the kids in this movie, which never happens. I root for the coming of age hero, usually.

    I really hate this movie.

  17. Thank you! Thank you! Thank you! I had thought I was all alone. I felt this movie was so boring it was actively boring. And the time thing also felt like a gimmick. It was so aggressively boring I actually hated it. (By the way, got here just now due to your The Get Down piece on LaineyGossip.)

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