Boyhood

Directed by Richard Linklater

Rather than present a more structured review, here’s a somewhat rambling list of some of my conflicting and very personal responses to Richard Linklater’s well-loved film.

  • I checked my watch a number of times, and yet, unlike Heterosexual Couples Therapy Part 3 (Before Midnight), I watched the whole thing.

  • I wasn’t all that interested in Mason until he hit high school, and getting through high school seemed to take FOREVER.

  • In a movie that doesn’t seem to care about the quality or uniformity of performances, or of tone, for that matter, it seems unfair to single out one for praise or shame, but the only one I responded to consistently was that of Patricia Arquette. Yet the film invites us to judge her, the present Mom, in a way it doesn’t invite us to judge the absent Dad. Mom yells; Dad makes custom CDs.

  • Speaking of whom, I don’t know whether or not Ethan Hawke is any kind of stand-in for Linklater himself, but they both share an inability to SHUT THE FUCK UP, a command I kept saying silently to everyone in this movie, and not the first time in a Linklater film. The most awful instance of this studied self-conscious verbosity is the final scene in Big Bend National Park, where surrounded by beauty and geological history and the evidence of their own insignificance, Linklater’s characters are still talking about themselves incessantly and looking at their feet walking, or only at other characters. Amazing. I think I was supposed to be connecting with Mason more than any other moment in the film, and I was to a certain extent, and yet I also wanted to cover his mouth with my hand, tilt his head up and say, Look around, you dumbass. You’re not all that is. (Similarly, folks, you’re in Paris. Don’t you just want to stroll together and look around?) I’d like to say that to Linklater, too.

  • Although this is more of an aside than any kind of key to Linklater’s films, the absence, even the structural absence, of any recognizably out gay people is starting to get on my nerves. In Tape, Robert Sean Leonard seems to be playing a repressed homosexual, to use that old-fashioned phrase and it’s kind of an old-fashioned movie. In Bernie, Jack Black gets that role, while Linklater has unconvincingly stated in interviews that Bernie’s sexuality is “irrelevant.” Riiiight, ’cause being closeted and a scam artist bear no resemblance to one another. In Before Midnight, when Linklater opens up the form he’s established to include other couples, and in the middle of the biggest cultural change marriage has undergone in centuries, in a movie about lasting commitment, and yet there are no gay couples, nor any allusion to or mention of gay lives and loves. This is a failure of political imagination, surely, but in my mind, an artistic failure as well. But referencing anyone who isn’t heterosexual, or rather a specific kind of moneyed, privileged white heterosexual, is beyond Linklater’s grasp.

  • And now in the generically and arrogantly titled BOYHOOD (there’s no article for a reason), there are at least 5 instances of homophobic language used by characters, including a really weird toast by Dad’s brother: Here’s to Mason, 18-years-old and straight…! Dad shushes him up, but what the hell did that mean?

  • Finally, what pleasures I did get out of this film are purely formal, since there’s not much style to talk about. (The film is shot for the most part like footage from a scouting weekend.) I loved the little jolt I got as soon I realized that time had moved on in the film without any sort of transition, and I had to re-orient myself and my sense of the characters. I was constantly asking, Who are these people? And: What are they doing now? That seems to me a significant achievement, and maybe an interesting comment on how humans behave, trying out new identities, tactics and strategies to fit their situations, and that personal continuity is an illusion.

Without understanding that, Mason’s final “insight” — It’s always right now, ya know? — would be as dumb as it sounds. Without Ellar Coltrane’s brief and amused look into the camera lens in the film’s final seconds, I might have written the whole thing off.

Beyond the easy references to existentialism that critics always bring up, maybe that is what Linklater has been getting at in every movie of his. That’s certainly the central point of Waking Life, a movie that works better if you don’t listen closely. But there’s nothing cynical about recognizing humanity’s ability to reconfigure itself on the fly, which is probably why, up until Before Midnight, I’ve been a fan. Just not so much of this particular boy and this particular boyhood.