Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a film defined by its own logistics. The project began back in 2002 when Linklater decided to bring together a group of actors to portray a family that would age and change with the natural passage of time. Clearly very conscious of the logistical difficulties inherent in keeping a cast together for over a decade, Linklater designed a production schedule that would minimise production time while giving him as much narrative wiggle-room as possible. Thus, rather than working from a fixed script, Linklater would shoot for a couple of weeks every year, re-watch all of the available footage and come up with just enough narrative and scripting to generate another year’s worth of footage. While it is easy to understand why Linklater would choose to approach the project in this fashion, his decision to emphasise flexibility at the expense of focus has resulted in a film that manages to lack both the complexities of real life and the resonance of fictional artifice. Stranded somewhere between the desert of the real and the palace of dreams, Boyhood is little more than a collection of haircuts and games consoles.
The film begins in small-town Texas where freshly-divorced single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is struggling to provide for her two children Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). In these early scenes, it is easy to see why Linklater chose these particular child actors: Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei seems every inch the star in waiting and Linklater seems to acknowledge as much by allowing her to sing, dance and generally play up to the camera while 6-year old Coltrane is a sweet child whose façade of introversion is occasionally disturbed by small ripples of emotion. Watching these scenes, I could not help but wonder whether Linklater might not have started out with an entirely different project in mind. Was this always going to be a film about a little boy growing up or was it going to be about a little girl or even an entire family? I suspect we’ll never know.
Equally impressive in these earlier scenes is Ethan Hawke as the divorced dad Mason senior. Hawke used to be quite an energetic actor and so it is quite disarming to watch him explode into his kids’ lives just as Arquette’s Olivia seems ready to throw in the towel. Hawke’s character is arguably one of Linklater’s better creations as Hawke manages to convey the fact that his character’s manic energy is all front. Mason senior isn’t a good father… he’s just playing the role of the cool dad because his life is a complete mess and he thinks that getting his kids to love him will allow him to rebuild. Olivia and her mother treat these overtures with naked contempt and it is in these moments that we see the ghost of Olivia and Mason’s marriage: He’s the big kid and she’s the responsible adult who picks up the pieces when something gets broken. Desperate for money and more than a little bit worried by the return of her ex-husband, Olivia uproots the kids and moves to Houston in order to go back to college.
Once in college, Olivia quickly gets involved with her psychology professor. Though considerably older than Olivia, the professor has a son and daughter with similar ages to Mason and Samantha, allowing the two families to fuse and live in the professor’s big house. Initially, things seem to work quite well as the kids get on with their new siblings and the professor’s salary means that Olivia can devote herself to getting an education without having to worry too much about money. However, it soon transpires that the professor is an alcoholic and we see the violence and irrationality impacting the kids long before Olivia is being brutalised to the point where she is forced to take her kids and move in with a close friend.
The movement between these two sections demonstrate many of the problems inherent in Linklater’s production schedule. We understand the need for Mason to surrender his first real friend for the move to Huston but the way that Linklater introduces and disposes of the professor and his kids shows a real lack of interest in the characters of both Mason and Samantha. These were people who were absolutely central to the lives of both Mason and Samantha and yet they are never mentioned again. Like a summer storm, the professor’s violence and unpleasantness comes out of nowhere and causes a lot of drama but it has no lasting consequences. Mason has his step-father throw a glass at his head during dinner and yet he never flinches from alcohol, never sees it coming when Olivia hooks up with yet another boozer and never shows any sign of trauma or resentment. Linklater’s interest in the emotional development of his characters is particularly striking when Samantha transforms from tyrannical tween to self-conscious teen without the change ever being acknowledged, let alone unpacked.
Linklater’s decision to work without a fixed script suggests a desire to adapt his narrative to the changing personalities of his child actors but he manifestly lacked the stomach required to pass judgement and adapt when both Coltrane and his own daughter wound up shedding the confidence of their early years. This refusal to work with the changing screen presences of his own actors results in a film that flinches from all suggestion of psychological cause and effect… these are lives without trauma, without memory and without grievance.
Given that the organic approach to characterisation didn’t pan out, one has to wonder why Linklater did not shift towards a more planned and scripted production process. He might not have been able to recreate the movement from childhood to personhood but he could at least have got them to pretend! It’s not just that Linklater and Coltrane are weak actors, it’s that neither of them has any narrative to work with. Aside from their parents, they have no enduring presences in their lives and nothing that happens to them ever seems to matter. Why didn’t he make them act? Why didn’t he give them lives?
In the place of psychology, Linklater fixates upon set-dressing. We aren’t allowed to see the children change as people but he ensures that they have different haircuts in every scene and the camera takes great interest in the games they play, the books they read, and the clothes they wear. While it may be fun to remember how obsessed people used to be with Harry Potter and the Iraq War, Linklater’s failure to connect his characters, his story and his use of contemporary imagery means that his engagement with pop culture feels more gimmicky than profound. Linklater’s complete lack of interest in both character psychology and cultural change is particularly evident when Mason senior winds up marrying into a family of Christian conservatives without anyone passing comment either upon the sudden change in his politics or the fact that his in-laws give Mason junior a Bible and a shotgun for his fifteenth birthday.
Clearly aware that his flexible production schedule and reluctance to engage with the emerging personalities of his child actors were resulting in a film that lacked both character arcs and themes, Linklater litters the script with meta-textual commentary as characters begin talking about the meaning of life in ways that feel like direct commentaries on Linklater’s mishandling of the project. For example, when Patricia Arquette’s character breaks down in tears over the lack of direction in her life, is she railing against the fates or complaining that a director with twelve years to think and two and a half hours to plot couldn’t come up with a decent character arc? This type of writing reminds me a lot of ‘90s action movies where writers would try to compensate for contrived plotting by having characters comment on the absurdity of their situations. Having Bruce Willis point out that Armageddon was poorly written did not excuse poor writing and nor does having Ellar Coltrane comment that his life feels like a series of disconnected moments.
The frustrating thing about Boyhood is that Linklater has an excellent track record when it comes to both understanding the lives of young people and working with actors as they grow older. Indeed, the Before trilogy comprising Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight is a textbook example of how to return to the same characters with the same actors over an extended period of time while allowing for changes in both actors’ personalities and interests. Similarly, Linklater’s films Slacker and Dazed and Confused show a real understanding of how kids’ personalities can change and how those changes are products of the culture that surrounds them. Linklater is better than almost anyone at making films that explore those moments when the rubber of individuality meets the road of being-in-society and yet Boyhood somehow contrives to be a film devoid of consequence. Instead of the weird initiation rituals of Dazed and Confused or the awareness of class and alienation that defined Slacker, we have a broad generic blandness… a lack of specificity where there should be life.