Most of what I’ve read about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has been complimentary to the point of gushing. Recently, though, I read a forum post that compared the film to a dancing bear – it’s not such much what it does than the sheer fact that it does what it does that makes it remarkable. The post concluded that people should go and see Boyhood, but it still came across as somewhere between condescending and dismissive. Go and see the dancing bear, because you won’t see another one any time soon!
Yet, while I don’t want to be dismissive of a film that obviously resonates with many people, part of me sees what the poster was saying. Boyhood is a good film by a talented filmmaker – though one that is rather hit-and-miss for me – but take away its most defining feature, and what remains? The movie’s biggest asset is that it was filmed over more than ten years using the same actors, so we literally see the people on screen growing up before our eyes. Gone is that often distracting effect of a shift in time being indicated by a change in actors who, at best, look kinda similar to their younger or older selves. Gone is that even more embarrassing effect of changing age being indicated by uneven makeup, clothes and wigs or bald caps, which is convincing one out of 99 times and laughable and sad the rest of the time.
It’s not altogether fair to ask what is left of a film if you take away its defining feature – but few films have one single defining feature. Boyhood is well crafted and serviceable throughout, with some elements standing out (for a film that’s as long as this one, it flows remarkably well) and others falling short (some actors who may or may not be related to the director may not always be altogether convincing in their parts). It’s enjoyable, engaging and altogether likeable, and it is too smart and self-aware to fall for the faux-depth that coming-of-age films focused on thoughtful, artistic young people can have.
Still, none of these are altogether exceptional – the one exceptional thing that Boyhood undoubtedly has is its sheer verisimilitude. The actors become the characters, not so much by dint of their acting but because they do one of the things that is always, and usually not particularly well, faked in films. The effect is engaging and intriguing – yet is verisimilitude what I look for in films? It works for Boyhood, but it does most of the heavy lifting. The ghost of Goddard’s “The cinema is truth 24 frames per second” (though I doubt he meant it all that literally) haunts the film, but if truth and reality become the same the medium leaves me behind. The logical development of the film would seem to be documentaries along the lines of the Up series, yet cinema can never be a complete, unadorned reproduction of reality – if indeed it should aim for this to begin with. Does verisimilitude come closer to truth, or even to a more partial, incomplete though still relevant truth? Other than the stylistic effect of one element of reality, what do we get out of watching Ellar Coltrane – rather than Ellar Coltrane as well as two or three actors looking somewhat like him – grow up?
It looks like I’ve ended up being similarly condescending towards Linklater’s latest. Ironically, I would still say I very much enjoyed Boyhood; I just don’t think I am particularly interested in what it does. Like Mason, Boyhood is likeable and engaging – but in the end I don’t think its standout feature is all that far from being a gimmick. If it is used again, I hope it’s put to the service of a more ambitious film.
“Take away its defining feature, and what remains”? First of all, why would you want to take away any film’s defining feature? Secondly, what remains? Well, a serious reflection on what constitutes plot, for one: in this case, not the potentially dramatic movies that could be made with this material (the patchwork family with the father sinking into drunkenness and violence; the new kid being bullied; ninth graders being bullied by twelfth graders; the single mom who gets her shit together; the stepmother and her fundamentalist family), but a different kind of drama that doesn’t depend on being “more” (to paraphrase the mom’s nearly last line, “I thought there would be more”). What else remains? How about the reflections on “magic” that run through the film? The film rejects “magic” in the storyline (“Are there any elves in the world right now?” — “No”) as well as in the plot as a whole (“magic” and “more” both get shown to be distractions from what can really make a movie take off). — There, that’s a brief sketch of my possible “Boyhood” essay. 🙂
I was kind of hoping you’d post something, Andrew! Your first point is one I’ve mentioned myself, and I think it’s a fair point to raise – but I did come away from the film thinking it’s a bit of a one-trick pony. It’s a bit like Russian Ark in that respect – it’s amazing to have a film like that one in one unedited shot, and it’s a great example of craft, but… so what? What else is there? Does the film do something other than signal verisimilitude by using the same actors over 11 years? You can ask whether it has to do anything else, but as I suggested, if the film primarily holds up a more convincing mirror to nature, then that’s simply not what I look for in films. Mirrors don’t interest me all that much.
I agree with you with respect to the ‘plotless’ drama of the film, and I liked that element, but Boyhood doesn’t stand out for me in that respect. It does it and it does it well enough, but I don’t think it does it exceptionally well.
Your last point is the one that I’d most like to hear more about; it’s intriguing, but I also find it rather nebulous right now. Any elaboration would be much appreciated! 🙂