Boyhood: A few thoughts on the Oscar frontrunner on the eve of nominations
I finally watched Boyhood the other day, and since it just won the Golden Globe and seems primed to be the Oscar favorite, I figured I’d share my thoughts.
Boyhood is a very good film with limitations that make me wonder: how much of a handicap was it to have just 45 days to shoot over 12 years? It’s quite an accomplishment. I also think it lacks the narrative force of Linklater’s best work (which for my money is the Before trilogy, and Before Sunset if we’re choosing one). Its primary virtues are less obvious, namely that it manages to imbue an ordinary life with a sense of importance, without ever seeming to try.
Boyhood is actually an interesting companion piece with Before Sunset. The early scenes from Boyhood were shot around the same time as that film, and it’s interesting to see Ethan Hawke inhabit a role in this film that sees him growing out of the character he played in Before Sunset (Both films see him as a dad in his early-30s grappling with his desire to still live like he’s in his twenties and his subsequent shortcomings as a father). Before Sunset also condenses years of heartache and dissatisfaction and the anxieties of feeling like you’re running out of time that come with approaching and then being in your 30s all into what is essentially a single 80-minute conversation. Before Sunset is a sudden outpouring of two peoples’ nine years of regret, while Boyhood is a quiet observation of every aspect of 12 years in a life. It’s undoubtedly compelling to watch, but I don’t think it quite surpasses the tumult of pure humanity that is Before Sunset.
I don’t think Before Sunset’s great volume makes it a necessarily better film, but that volume is fine tuned and focused, while Boyhood’s form is messier, sometimes to a fault. Its narrative lens is oddly inconsistent. We see practically the full scope of Olivia as a character, and her relationship with Mason, and we get a clear sense of Mason Sr.’s strengths and foibles as a father. But we never really sense how Mason Sr.’s long absences affect Mason. We also don’t get any sense of Samantha and Mason having an actual relationship. At the end when she is asked to give a speech for her brother’s graduation, it’s a pat “Good luck”. And honestly, any other reaction would have been contrived, because we just don’t know who she is by the time the movie ends. The portrait of this family doesn’t quite feel finished.
Boyhood is an impressive film, and its likely slew of Oscar nominations will be well-deserved. For Linklater Boyhood occupies a territory similar to A Serious Man for the Coen brothers and The Tree of Life for Terrence Malick: films that demonstrate deep curiosity and risky storytelling by veteran virtuosos. They might lack the polish of their very best work, but I’m grateful that they were willing to pursue these stories in the first place.