As I rather suspected Boyhood is a film where the gimmick is rather what makes the film. If you don’t know what the gimmick is, they got the same core of four actors (and a few more at various points) to come back for a few days every year for twelve years so you can see the family growing up together. The titular boy, his sister, his mum and dad (the parents are separated so there’s a step dad and so on as well) growing old together.
That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film though, far from it. It’s charming and captivating because it does something that really no other film before it has done. This film is a snapshot of a boy growing up (his boyhood is defined as being from his first day in school to his first day in college) in a fairly ordinary family. It’s not purely about Mason Jr. we get almost as much of the tribulations of his mother and his sister. We get less of his father’s life but enough chunks to read things into that too. It could almost as easily have been called girlhood, although as Mason gets older it does focus more on him, particularly after Samantha goes away to college. I suspect the fact it was written and conceived by a man has slanted it to the male point of view because he was sure he could get it tonally right for a boy; there are a couple of boys parties and things and a boy walking on his sister and her friends that I assume he’s comfortable writing and he wouldn’t have been comfortable doing from a girl’s perspective. In fact I wonder just how much it’s autobiographical - the fact that Kevin Linklater, the director, also wrote it and Mason is a photographer helps direct that speculation, but so do moments like a conversation in a dark room that rings really true to the point I’m sure Linklater had a conversation like that somewhere in his school life.
There are moments of high drama and moments where it’s slow. There are moments where it’s laugh out loud funny and moments where it moved me to tears. Mom’s tears when Mason puts his first picture back in his room and the summary of her life in particular - ouch. There are also moments where it’s excruciatingly embarrassing - one that is as awkward as you might imagine is the talk about sex when Samantha doesn’t want to go camping with her brother and her dad because she’s going to a party and her boyfriend will be there… It’s not how I had that talk but it definitely brings back all those memories.
There are conversations and moments I’ve never had but which are sufficiently rites of passage that everyone probably feels like they’ve had them, your mum telling you off because your mate used the toilet that was out of order getting shouted at in your crappy first job cleaning tables and so on.
In many ways nothing happens but at the same time this is a real-life drama of the truest kind, the kind to which we can all relate because although we haven’t done exactly this drama we’ve all done enough of it and recognise enough of it we can easily relate.
Because of the way it’s shot there’s a really grounded sense of fashion, I assume American cars, and gadgets which is fun and somehow, oddly, relaxing. The incidental music too just works all the way through. Music is fairly important, because Dad is a musician or wants to be. Although I’m not a baseball fan the dad is and they go to the baseball and that works its way in nicely although not intrusively. There are on-going moments of politics and social commentary and all the rest. Some of the moments feel too rushed - Mom’s marriage to Bill could be a movie in its own right - but when you’re covering all of growing up in under 3 hours that’s going to happen and the film does work even as part of me wants to, in a very iOS way, zoom in on that section and see the whole of that movie.
This might well be a film I never watch again but it is a film I feel richer for having watched. Having been done, no one will be able to do another one without it being labelled as so derivative, but you equally have to wonder how no one had the idea before. If you demand plot and drive and explosions and so on, you’ll hate it, but as a character drama this is truly brilliant and well worth your time.
Bechdel test: Yes. Samantha has various girlie chats with named female friends at a few points. If Mom counts as a named character, which I’m never sure about, she also has several conversations both with Samantha and adult female friends that are not about men.
Russo test: Fail. Although various boys call each other “faggot” and similar there’s no identified LGBT character.
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