About A (Privileged) Boyhood (2014)

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Boyhood, the latest overpraised effort from Richard Linklater, has the misfortune of playing at a very tense time in America. Right now the residents of Ferguson, Missouri continue to protest after the fatal shooting of yet another unarmed black teenager. This time it was 18-year-old Michael Brown, who was due to begin college this past Monday. His murder set into motion a series of events (chiefly, the protection of the officer who shot him and the blatant smear campaign against the victim by releasing a video of an unrelated robbery) that highlights the worst of the systematic racism so thoroughly intertwined in our culture. Boyhood, for all its claims of ubiquity, presents an altogether different portrait of American adolescence, perhaps not ideal, but still one unencumbered with too harsh realities.

The film follows the life of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to age eighteen, and a lot of people seem impressed by the 12 year-span of the shooting schedule  (Boyhood was filmed from the summer of 2002 to October 2013). We watch Mason grow alongside his older sister Sam (Lorelai Linklater) while their single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggles to provide a good life for herself and her children. Mason’s life is punctuated by frequent appearances from his liberal bohemian father (Ethan Hawke), who does a bit of growing up himself over the course of the film. In the meantime, Mason moves several times across Texas as his mother returns to university and two of her marriages subsequently fall apart. While Boyhood does a fairly precise job of capturing all the usual plot points of a young person’s life–first beer, first kiss, first love, etc.–the darker aspects (two alcoholic stepfathers, domestic abuse) are glossed over. None of these issues are explored very deeply, much less their effect on Mason examined. It seems a boy’s life is less defined by individual experiences than by checking off certain rites of passage. Then again, for a film as universal as Boyhood wants to be, one has to deal in generalities, which brings me to my main problem with the film.

The very title suggests some sweeping, even global depiction of youth, and it’s clear steps were taken in pursuit of that goal, like Mason’s general lack of a personality, making him more a vessel for the audience than an actual character. Coltrane does fine with the material for the most part, though he’s never given a lot to work with, and as he gets older, he’s prone to insufferable musings about the meaning of life, made, if possible, even worse when he is joined in a scene by other characters trying just as hard (and failing) to be profound. If the film succeeds at anything, it’s Mason’s apathy and ennui, typical of those who have been handed most things in life. Because we already disproportionately see films from the White heterosexual male perspective, Boyhood, considered apart from its coming-of-age in real time gimmick (which has also been done before), is rather unexceptional. Perhaps worse, it perpetuates the myth of White privileged childhood as “the norm” when it is actually very specific. By the time we’re made aware of them, the film’s stronger points about taking responsibility, being present in the moment, have been lost in a polarizing narrative. Linklater may have realized this, or some version of this, because there’s an immigrant storyline (for lack of a better description of a two-minute arc) slapped on that is at best useless and at worst White savior-ish.

All that said, Boyhood is not a bad film.  The acting is good, the cinematography engaging, and the film boasts several sincere, endearing moments between Mason and his family.  But This Boy’s Life (1993) and The Tree of Life (2011)  did it better.

3/5 *

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