Sunday, July 27, 2014

Boyhood (2014)

A maddening masterpiece. 

I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind. (Ecclesiastes 1:14, ESV)

Boyhood is the vivid portrayal of the boy Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) life over twelve years, from five to seventeen. Living with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and unbearable sister, but spending the weekends with his absentee father (Ethan Hawke), Mason watches as his mom falls in and out of love with several new father figures, struggles with the people and places fading in and out of his life, grapples with his own complacency and lack of purpose, and seeks to find meaning in his life.

Boyhood was long in the making, scenes being shot once a year as Coltrane aged. This fact is, by far, the film’s most impressive offering: it is truly a wonder to watch as Mason grows up on screen, the camera never shying away from his awkward teenage years or his raging acne.

But because of its twelve years, the film is better described by its process than its plot. It offers little in the way of a cohesive story, following no three-act structure, bouncing around from year to year and happenstance to happenstance, without any real purpose or overall story. Characters are introduced, questions are raised, and scenarios are started. Few of these fragments ever find closure; the one story that does reach an ending becomes one of the movie’s cheesiest scenes, grasping—too late—for the audience’s empathy. While the creativity of Boyhood’s concept offers an outrageous amount of potential, the film never capitalizes on it. By the end, I felt like I'd been watching a documentary, not a movie.

Boyhood has its good points. Coltrane shines as Mason in every scene, disappearing into his role. Hawke is phenomenal, and his character’s progression is believable and fascinating. The dialogue is good, always genuine and heartfelt, although unfortunately riddled with strong profanity. There are many story fragments and arcs, some falling flat but others intriguing. The storyline revolving around Mason’s mother’s second husband is the most fascinating; watching Bill transform from occasional drinker to abusive alcoholic is painful, even terrifying, in its realism. The film’s soundtrack is also a highlight. The progression of years is emphasized by the familiar sounds of that year’s hit; from Coldplay’s “Yellow” to Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” to Arcade Fire’s recent “Deep Blue,” the songs not only encapsulate the mood of the film, but the tenor of the passage of time.

But for all the good, there was even more bad. Two scenes towards the film’s end illustrated its ultimate hopelessness. In one, Mason, recently heartbroken, asks his father, "What is the point of all this?" His impassioned plea for answers only elicits an "I don't know, son." In the other, Mason’s mother bemoans her son’s departure for college. She wails, "I just thought there would be more!" These scenes illustrate the film’s fatal flaw. While the characters continue to age, they never actually grow. They mature, but never become better. They leave the audience without hope.

Mason started the movie as a precocious five-year-old who hates school and has no drive or motivation. Despite the many attempts of those around him, Mason ends the movie as an aimless, complacent 17-year-old, still falling trap to the same patterns that plagued him from his childhood. This is probably what the director intended, to demonstrate that sometimes people are duds, their lives never transcending their own mediocrity.

Watching Boyhood unfold gave me a clear picture of writer and director Richard Linklater’s worldview. In his perception, life doesn’t operate like the movies. Rather, it’s a combination of tiny events—lacking a true conflict or villain—that form a complete life. Hidden behind this premise lies a true hopelessness. Linklater denies any eternal meaning or greater purpose, mocking any contrary position. The various teachers, employers, and relatives who try to encourage Mason, urging him to do more with his life, are shrugged off as foolish or played for laughs—portrayed as redneck hicks pounding Bibles and shooting guns. Boyhood rejects any promise of hope or the thought that there might be something more to life.

While Linklater’s temporal outlook may have been shared by most of the audience, it presents a problem cinematically. Movies have meaning. Movies have a purpose. Movies give hope. And the reactions of the audience around me demonstrated that they were expecting more. We would gasp when foolish boys engaged in dangerous dares, when Mason recklessly picked up a saw. We would tense when Mason looked at his cell phone—or took a swig from a flask—while driving. We all expected something to happen, but nothing ever did—or at least nothing that left a meaningful impact in the overall scope of the film.

Boyhood is an undeniable masterpiece—but a messy, maddening one. As the credits rolled, I felt totally empty—frustrated that I had spent almost three hours watching what amounted to total nothingness. The lack of any growth or redemption left me feeling grieved, saddened instead of hopeful. But that was its point: life is empty and meaningless, offering no catharsis to its audience. The film is stuck on its rejection of purpose and meaning, wallowing in its own hopelessness.

As I tried pinpointing my frustration with the film, Solomon came to mind. He also wrestled with life’s purpose and meaning. But instead of a resigned complacency to hopelessness, Solomon concluded differently: The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil. (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, ESV)

Boyhood rejects this perspective, missing out on the ultimate point of life. Life does have meaning. Life does have purpose. By rejecting this premise, it frustrates and grieves, falling short as both a social commentary and as a film.

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