And 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…?”
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.
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!