Boyhood: Fun if not gripping

I enjoyed Boyhood a lot.

I’m still not quite sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, it’s a technical masterpiece. To take five core actors, and build a coherent story around scenes shot over the course of twelve years, is an incredible achievement. In that sense – working over that time frame – is almost not a film any more, it’s an entirely new medium. A review in The Guardian quotes Richard Linklater, the director:

“It almost isn’t even like a film at all,” Linklater tells me. “It’s somewhere between summer camp and an art project. It’s like a time sculpture.”

That seems fair to me. Simply to manage a coherent storyline, a consistency in the feel of the filming, the art, the characters and the script is … remarkable. As a piece of art, Boyhood is an outstanding achievement.

I think that’s what a lot of the critics may have been responding to. It’s gotten rave reviews – there’s a summary at Wikipedia, and I’m sure in other places on the interwebs.

For all of that brilliance, though, it felt as though there was something that still felt … missing, a little. I suppose that thing for me was narrative. I’ll try to unpack what that means.

I spent the first few scenes of the movie … wondering, I suppose, if something was going to go wrong? That sounds a little anxious – I think I was waiting for what Robert McKee might call the inciting incident, the moment when something throws the protagonist off-balance, and gives her or him something to strive for.

But none of that really happens in Boyhood. We see a boy, in childhood scenes that are superbly shot and … beautiful in how authentic they feel. Gradually, as the movie moves through its different phases, we see story arcs emerge. There is his mother’s struggle, to find a relationship and stability. There’s his own struggle, that felt … top heavy, to be honest, crammed into the last sections of the film. Here we see him as a teenager, trying to … define what he wants, to a limited extent.

But unfortunately through it all, Mason doesn’t … do anything at all, really. He shows some talent for photography, but there’s no real choice that we’re aware of, no choosing between mutually exclusive but meaningful options.

The movie offers a few reflections on life through its characters; a moment in a psychology lecture his mother gives, advice from a father to a son, the yells of wasted teenagers into the evening sky. They can feel a tiny bit heavy at points.

At other stages there is some lovely, more subtle commentary – as a friend put it, a character showing up out of the blue ‘to speak what the others are thinking’ (wait for the scene in the restaurant with the guy wearing a tie).

But for all that, it was hard to think what the story was. It was … a lot of things – a beautiful reflection on time, a stunning portrait of the process of getting older, a lovely sketch of how difficult it can be defining yourself, a reminder of how exciting life can be and the opportunities that are available – there’s all that in Boyhood, and it’s beautiful.

In The Guardian review I quoted earlier, Xan Brooks writes that ‘Film is a narrative and narrative means time’. Which, may be technically true on some level, but I think really misses the point of what narrative is. Time in a narrative can be any scale at all, and I don’t think it really matters that much except as it serves the purpose of the narrative. Time can be a person’s life, condensed into a single day (Ian McEwan’s brilliant Saturday immediately comes to mind), or a good story can be about the experiences of a single day. McKee says this better than I do, but I think I agree that fundamentally narrative is about choices, and the self-revelation that they offer; and ultimately Boyhood doesn’t offer that to the viewer.

And now that I think about it, it … it would be possible (again, immensely difficult given the format, but possible) to tell a story about decisions, rippling through time.

So I would say that Boyhood is a stunningly beautiful piece, a lovely meditation on family, and growing older, but it is not … a narrative, in the deeper sense.

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