Posted August 17, 2014 by William Dunmyer in Linklater's Latest

Boyhood: Superficial Exploration of Childhood

Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood is not much more than a filmmaking gimmick. It’s a great gimmick but a pretty shallow film. It has its charms though.

The most interesting aspect of Boyhood is that it took more than 10 years to film. In that sense it’s a tour de force — certainly an impressive example of filmmaking persistence and stamina on the part of the filmmaker and the cast.

Linklater assembled a cast in around 2002 and got them all to commit to a 12-year project. Every couple of years they would come together to film the next sequence.

We literally watch the cast age. This is quite breathtaking when it comes to the child actors. Ellar Coltrane plays a boy who goes from age 6 to 18. Lorelei Linklater (the filmmaker’s daughter) plays the boy’s sister. She crosses the same age span. The parents are played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who age from their mid-30’s to mid-40’s.

The problem is that the script is quite shallow. Linklater has nothing really to say about this family. He’s just fascinated by the idea of watching children age on-screen. We watch this family perform one banal task after the next and have one dull conversation after another. When the boy is in high school, it’s particularly bad. He all but sleepwalks, shuffling around the set like a zombie.

I feel bad for the teenage Coltrane, as he was given so little story content or dialogue with which to work. I began to feel that I was watching an uninteresting documentary about a brain-dead, very average teenager.

Linklater had countless opportunities to dig into the characters and the circumstances they faced. At every turn, he chose to remain on the surface. Example: The mother struggles for several years to get educated and succeeds. She even ends up as a college instructor, all while raising two children mostly on her own. What was that like? How did her life and mindset transform as she got more education? What was it like for the children to watch their mother get educated? How did it affect her parenting? Guess what the film has to say about this: Nothing.

Another example: The boy becomes interested in photography and spends countless hours in his high school’s dark room, using archaic photographic technology as opposed to digital methods. He submits a few photos in a statewide contest and wins second prize. He obviously has talent and something clearly is coming across in his photographs. What is going on for him when he shoots? What feelings does photography trigger in him? What subjects does he choose and why? Guess what Boyhood has to say about this: Almost nothing.

One more: The father is a non-custodial parent, visiting the children only occasionally. How does it feel to be an absent parent? How does it impact his self-esteem? Why isn’t he a full-time parent? In the second half of the film, he marries a born-again Christian and grows close to her parents, who give the children Bibles and shotguns as presents. What was this transition like for him? I’d love to know. It’s a complete lifestyle 180 for him. Believe it or not, Boyhood says next to nothing about it.

Unfortunately, this film stays resolutely superficial from beginning to end.

The cinematography, it also must be said, is completely pedestrian. It looks like a movie made for basic cable: the Lifetime Network, for example. Plain lighting, ordinary mise-en-scène, boring camera angles, predictable editing. It’s almost devoid of filmmaking style.

This project would have been interesting if it had a significant story and script. These elements are not nice-to-haves in my book; they are must-haves. I commend Linklater and the cast for their commitment to cinema. But time-span photography does not a film make.

William Dunmyer

William Dunmyer is a lifelong cinephile who fell in love with movies at about the age of 5. He lives in New York City.