Movie Review - Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane (left) and Ethan Hawke in "Boyhood"
Despite this movie's title, the boy in question is the least interesting character in these series of vignettes. The actor who plays the boy in question is the least interesting and least capable actor. Ironically, I would have preferred the boy be taken out completely and have the movie be about any of the other family members.

Ellar Coltrane stars as Mason, the son of a divorced couple living in or near Houston, Texas. The film starts when Mason is in elementary school and follows him as he leaves to attend college. He has an older sister named Samantha, played by Lorelei Linklater. He mainly lives with his mom Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette, but they spend every other weekend with their dad Mason, Sr., played by Ethan Hawke.

When Hawke appears on screen, he's like a breath of fresh air. He's so engaging and dynamic. He's fun and funny. He just lights up a room. He's got that much charisma. This is the opposite of Coltrane. It might be because he's not given much to say or even do throughout the majority of the movie.

Many of the early scenes are Coltrane opposite Lorelei Linklater and she steals every single one. This might be intentional on the filmmaker's part, but often Lorelei Linklater has to make the scene because Coltrane isn't adding anything. He's muted and almost a non-presence until the very end right before he goes to college.

Even then, he's still eclipsed by the acting of everyone around him, including Patricia Arquette whose work here as a struggling, single mother, working to get her degree and better her life, while she bounces from husband-to-husband, is nothing short of fantastic. Arquette delivers what is no question an Oscar-worthy performance.

The comparisons to Terence Malick's The Tree of Life are appropriate, but whereas Malick had purpose and explored similar issues with greater weight, writer-director Richard Linklater is more airy. Malick debates faith and grapples with life and death, whereas Linklater merely gives us pop culture references, making his film more a history of video games and computer technology than insightful observation of the American landscape.

There is a scene that feels almost ripped from The Tree of Life. Olivia has remarried and her new husband is an abusive drunk named Bill. Much like Brad Pitt as the overbearing and stern father figure exploded at the dinner table, so does Marco Perella who plays Bill. Perella has appeared in a couple of Linklater's previous films, Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly, but he is perhaps no more menacing than he is here.

I recognize that Linklater's scene was probably shot years prior to Malick's, but ironically Malick was able to get his to the screen first. Yet, there's no reason Linklater couldn't have brought his vision to the screen first. The gimmick he employed of shooting this film bit by bit over an actual 12-year period seems inconsequential. Besides bragging rights of being able to document an actual boy's real-life growth, the movie perhaps could have been better served with a better actor or at least a different one to play Mason at various ages.

Another reason Linklater could have delivered this film to the screen earlier is because the back half or really last third felt clunky and repetitive. We see Olivia briefly involved with yet another man, perhaps with alcoholism, who plays a lot of the same beats as the previous husband. This new man named Jim, played by Brad Hawkins, allows Linklater yet another opportunity to hit the audience over the head with more of his clear, pro-Obama, anti-war, liberal rhetoric.

Linklater presents this family with very little drama or keeps a lot of drama at arm's length. Many shots have the children watching their parents argue without having us see or hear much of it. This is true of most children's point-of-view, but it saps any excitement.

The character of Samantha is really the only child that puts up any kind of fight or registers any kind of outrage. Mason is again mostly mute. The aspect of boyhood or childhood in general that's lost on Linklater is the idea of rebellion. How more interesting would things have been if Mason had exhibited any rebellion?

One moment has Mason somewhat argue with his father about the selling of a car, but that's about it. His father instills his political beliefs on his kids, but what if Mason truly developed his own mind and became a Republican, a gun-toting, Bible-thumping Republican? But, no! He basically becomes a carbon copy of his dad or rather of Ethan Hawke in any Linklater film. Mason just goes along. This is probably indicative of a lot of boyhood experiences, but it makes for not a very exciting movie.

One scene has Mason go along with what is clear misogyny and homophobia put on display by his so-called friends. Mason claims in that scene to have had sex with girls before. Yet, because of the choppy nature of the film's narrative and because we're not given enough of Mason's world, it's unclear if he's telling the truth in that moment or if he's lying. Coltrane's performance in that moment doesn't help either. The performance of another boy is way more effective and telling. Coltrane is just flat.

After a while, the movie feels like it's dragging. It goes on way too long and the final scene is just tacked on it. It had no impact or any kind of resonance. It perhaps becomes a teenage version of Before Sunrise with Mason playing the Ethan Hawke role, but even that doesn't fully work.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 43 mins.


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