We're introduced to Mason (Coltrane) at the age of six, living in Texas with his mother Olivia (Arquette) and sister Samantha (Linklater, director Richard's daughter). Over the course of the film we follow his development for a period of 12 years.
A couple of years ago, British film-maker Michael Winterbottom presented us with Everyday, a family drama spanning a timeframe of several years. Winterbottom had gathered his cast and crew for a few weeks each year over a five year period, allowing us to witness the real-time physical development of his cast (unremarkable with the adults, but strikingly so with the child actors), a cinematic version of Harvey Keitel's photo a day experiment in Smoke. At the same time as Winterbottom was conducting his experiment, across the water, Richard Linklater was doing exactly the same thing on a larger scale, spending 12 years chronicling a fictional character essayed by an unknown child actor.
The lead character of Winterbottom's film was a prison inmate, the film broken into chapters revolving around his annual weekend leaves from confinement, which he spends with his family. I didn't think much of it at the time, but having now seen Boyhood, I can fully appreciate why Winterbottom employed this device. It allows us to share the character's sense of how much of life, and his children's development, he's missing. Each time he sees his children, they're a little more unrecognisable to both himself and the viewer.
With Boyhood, however, the lead character is the child himself, so the narrative jumps become jarring. Imagine, if you will, watching a random episode of, let's say, since we're dealing with Texas here, the third season of Dallas, followed by a random episode from the show's fourth season. The characters have dramatically changed, but you've no idea why, because you missed a year's worth of character development. That's the effect of Linklater's film and, though it's his desired effect, it often feels a little too convenient, allowing Linklater to take the sort of narrative shortcuts we wouldn't approve of were it not for his novel film-making approach.
Linklater substitutes physical development for character development and haircuts for story beats and the movie collapses entirely for a 20 minute period with the introduction of a crassly handled domestic abuse subplot. Because we're missing so much information, it appears that the victim walks away from her abuse with unrealistic ease, transforming her life around in the space of a scene.
While Mason is a very real character, though a far from interesting one, those around him are crudely drawn archetypes; long suffering single mother, wastrel absent stoner father (Hawke as Mason Sr, with his famous goatee in place for the entire 12 year period), abusive alcoholic stepfathers, gun-toting bible-thumping rural grandparents, and the, now almost compulsory in American cinema, figure of the prudish Asian dorm room-mate.
Linklater paints a picture of America that resembles an extended election campaign promo. It's an America where people transform their lives for the better, but like political promises, we never see how any of this is achieved. Olivia goes from studying psychology to lecturing, Mason Sr is a pot-smoking layabout for half the movie until he reappears as a suitclad, church-going family man, and most patronisingly of all, a young Hispanic man becomes a restaurant manager after following the years-earlier advice of Olivia while fixing her drains, as if incapable of thinking for himself without the aid of a pep-talk from a liberal white lady.
While it's intriguing to watch the time-lapse physical development of Coltrane, like thumbing through a photo album in a stranger's dusty attic, there's little else to keep us hooked. If you're a pop culture junkie, Mason Sr's chats about music and movies with his son will prove amusing - especially a now on-the-nose debate about the prospects of a seventh Star Wars movie in a scene filmed circa 2007/8 - but otherwise we're left merely awaiting the next haircut, or wondering just how strikingly Coltrane will eventually come to facially resembling Peter Dinklage by the film's conclusion.
Review by Eric Hillis
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