A time capsule of the early 21st century, a coming of age story and an ode to parenthood all wrapped into a two and a half hour package, Boyhood is a film seemingly designed for watercooler discussions and one I’m still not totally sure is clichéd nonsense wrapped up in an ambitious gimmick. It’s a film that merits talking about from more than one perspective, so to make this story, I reached out for a young father’s opinion to help me figure out if Boyhood is up to scratch.
Meet Darryl Webber – a Features Editor for Local World South East and a film journalist. (You can read his review of Boyhood here). He has two young sons, Albie 4 and George, aged 1.
Does Boyhood’s time hopping concept work?
DW - We're used to travelling in time and seeing actors age in front of our eyes in films, but not in the way we see it in Boyhood.
Normally, when we follow a character through a passage of time in a film we see different actors play the part at different ages but the brilliance of Richard Linklater's conceit is having one actor playing one role over the course of 12 or 13 years. Inevitably, we connect with the actor not just the character; we see them develop, change and mature.
That means Boyhood isn't just about the character of Mason growing up, it's the real kid, Ellar Coltrane, transforming from a child to an adult.
That simple but remarkable process at the heart of the film totally justifies its 'leap years', the sudden lurches forward in chronology that come unannounced in the film.
Our best initial indicator of a year passing is Mason's ever-changing hair styles and while we might feel a bit dissatisfied as one story thread seems to dry up or remain unresolved when we move a year on. That's okay, that's life. It doesn't always have neat story arcs and obvious outcomes.
The lack of a narrative device to mark another year turning (a flicking calendar, a tree through the seasons) is fine by me. The time-hopping makes Boyhood seem natural, chaotic and unpredictable, just like life itself.
CA – Boyhood’s time hopping concept needs a bit of time to get your head around when watching. Without any “2006” signatures, you have to rely on visual indicators and throwaway lines of dialogue in some of the film’s quieter moments. Some are subtle, like what version of an iPod a character is using; others, like Mason telling his dad what films are in the cinema, or queuing to get Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, less so. The first third of Boyhood, before Mason hits puberty and essentially just has things happen to him is full of “Oh I remember that song/fad/product… this must be year 20XX”.
What’s interesting with the concept as not only does it show the messy sprawling nature of growing up (Mason’s friends, love interests and bullies are parachuted in an out in his early years – your best friend at 6 isn’t likely to be your best friend at 10), but in the 12 years it took to make Boyhood, Linklater’s become a better filmmaker. He’s released 10 films in the time it’s taken to finish Mason’s story and its clear he’s learned a bit on how to use a camera and write better dialogue. Camera shots get tighter, dialogue more realistic and themes take on a better subtlety. Boyhood’s time skipping is weird as it’s probably allowed Linklater to create a better film than he set out to way back in the early Noughties.
What is Boyhood trying to say about children and parents ?
CA – A big part of Boyhood is Mason growing up with divorced parents. His Dad (played by Linklater stalwart Ethan Hawke) is a bit of a manchild still playing music in a band when the film starts, while with his mother (Patricia Arquette), go back to school to finish her degree, leaving him largely in the middle to do as he wishes.
As Mason grows up with weekend visits from his biological father and lectures from his mother’s somewhat questionable boyfriends, Boyhood turns into one of the best and most honest on-screen representations of a growing up going from parent to parent.
As he develops, Mason turns into an all too familiar teen, rolling his eyes every time someone tries to impart some advice, but rather than just be a moody ungrateful so and so, in seeing his story you grow to understand the thought process of a young person with an absent father and begin to identify with him.
Getting attention in short bursts and moving from home to home affects him, he sees everything as temporary so when his later teenage girlfriend chastises him for being moody and pessimistic you can only shrug and laugh.
By turns funny, intense and insightful, Boyhood hits a lot of notes in the relationships children have with their grown ups, and manages to do it without ever being smaltzy or overblown.
DW – Everything changes when you become a parent. That’s the theory anyway. Suddenly you become responsible, reliable and mature... but it doesn’t always turn out like that as Boyhood shows.
The assortment of father figures in Boyhood is not a particularly impressive bunch on the parenting front, ranging from neglectful to resentful and abusive. As much as Boyhood is about a kid growing up, it's also about parenthood. It’s about how parents are just making it up as they go, doing the best they can in the circumstances. Well, those that aren’t too wrapped up in their own problems anyway.
Ethan Hawke’s Mason Sr may be charming and caring but he’s also absent a lot of the time. It’s left to Mason’s mother to pick up the pieces and put in the hard hours.
There is no perfect, idyllic relationship between parents and children on show, but we see Mason Sr get better at being a dad over time. In fact it’s interesting to watch Ethan Hawke grow older in the film, from a young man himself into a wiser, more subdued character in his 40s. We’ve seen Hawke grow up on screen from whey-faced kid in Dead Poet’s Society to middle-aged dad in both Boyhood and Before Midnight. Watching him in Boyhood, I kept thinking of that nervous, unconfident pent-up kid in Dead Poet’s Society wanting to express himself. I really identified with him in that film and I do in Boyhood. For me Boyhood is as much about being an adult and a parent as it is about being a kid growing up. It made me think about what it means to be a good father.
Finally, is Boyhood any good?
CA – I really have no idea. Boyhood is certainly going to go down as an important film; it’s the indie darling sitting pretty on critic lists, that person in the office you can barely tolerate loves it and posters of it will end up adorning many walls of the arty and pretentious.
It’s messy, it’s sprawling and overlong (at least three scenes at the end could have been cut off). There’s next to no satisfying resolution to story arcs as challenges, lovers and even step-siblings drop in and out with no signposting. Mason can be a bit of a drip and the film stumbles once his sister goes off to college. And I just can’t help but shake this nagging feeling that “that’s how life works” isn’t a good excuse to deflect some of the film’s faults – isn’t the point of part of cinema and coming of age tales in particular, is we get some sort of catharsis from the characters that remind us of ourselves?
That said, you will enjoy Boyhood. Either by dumb luck or intelligent design Richard Linklater has managed to create a film like no other that will live long in the memory. A bit like a post-Christmas holiday diet of turkey sandwiches, it’s good, it’s familiar and there’s lots of it, but you may find yourself wanting to mix it up after a while.
DW – There’s far more to Boyhood than just the conceit of how it was made. Sure, it’s a cute idea to film a kid actually growing up over 12 years while you get him to act out a character’s development. But this is a film that resonates beyond that.
I felt a real connection with the story of Mason and his family, rooting for them through all the tough times they go through and never really being sure that things would get better rather than worse.
Boyhood is not about earth-shattering events, it’s about little moments. It’s about the rich, random details of everyday life not the normal Hollywood sequence of acts leading to a climactic ending. It’s the story of all of us, that’s why it’s so good.