Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a film of contradictions: Epic in scope, and yet confined by its focus; a film about finding its lead’s character, that ends just as he is finally discovering who he really is. While I went to see the story of a young boy grow to the cusp of adulthood, I found myself more interested in the story of his mother, at times wishing the film was titled Motherhood.
In following the growth of a character, portrayed by the same actor, over many years, Boyhood follows in the footsteps of Francois Truffaut’s sequels to The 400 Blows and Linklater’s own Before trilogy. Setting itself apart, Boyhood is unique in that instead of being a series of films produced over many years, this film was shot each year for twelve years.
This approach has made the film famous, yet it would mean nothing if the technique did not pay off. In many ways, the risky technique achieved what Linklater set out to accomplish, namely capturing the development of a child until he reaches adulthood. That said, his focus on the childhood of Mason Jr., played beautifully at every age by Ellar Coltrane, does not end up being the most interesting element of his coming-of-age epic.
At times feeling like a down-to-earth version of Malick’s The Tree of Life, Linklater’s film similarly shines in small moments of incredible honesty. However, due to Linklater’s linear approach to his film, it is his choice of subject that restricts what the film could be. While his Before trilogy showed us clearly defined characters that grew over a span of twenty years, Boyhood‘s Mason Jr. only begins to define himself towards the end of the film. This may be the point of the film, to show us a boy becoming a man and discovering who he is, however, it means we see but a glimpse of that fully defined character as the film finally comes to a close.
Because of this, I found myself looking elsewhere for a more interesting narrative, and that came most clearly in the story of Mason’s mom, played by Patricia Arquette. As the film begins, she is a woman who has found an identity forced upon her. Over these twelve years, we see her struggle and grow to find an identity all her own. At times her story is heavily focused on, other times it is at the periphery of the film’s titular boyhood. Unfortunately, even when her story is centre stage, it is almost always in context of how it affect’s Mason’s life. This is understandable, as the film is told from his perspective, yet I found myself wanting more intimate moments with her character. Arquette’s performance is phenomenal, and begs the question, why do we not see more of her?
Often the best coming-of-age films are stories of self-reflection, Boyhood is not one of these films. It is original in the sense it is a film that always feels in-the-moment. It is only focused on what is happening in that scene, and not what is to come. Even though it is at times frustrating, Linklater accomplished something unique and wonderful with Boyhood. Seeing a character age and grow over the course of three hours does allow for many beautiful moments throughout the film. It is just unfortunate that it did not allow for as much intimacy and insight into the more interesting story being told in the background.