A good idea ends up a gimmick in ‘Boyhood’

It’s easy to imagine writer and director Richard Linklater filming Boyhood while thinking to himself, I can’t believe no one’s thought of this. His concept is so simple, yet so enticing. It alone could be enough to move masses into cinemas.

Linklater didn’t just create a film that takes place over 12 years. He filmed it over 12 years.

Boyhood is a family drama charting 12 years in the life of Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane), a boy whose family can’t ever seem to find its footing. From 2002 to 2013, I witnessed Mason transform not only mentally, but also physically.

Linklater took a gamble in filming Boyhood over such a long period, which undoubtedly would have introduced countless uncontrollable variables into the mix. But with risk comes reward, and the reward is a film that feels like an authentic and nostalgic trip from childhood to adulthood.

This nostalgia is actually an important part of how the story is delivered. Rather than having “2008” flash on the screen in bold text, the transition from year to year is expressed through audio cues and pop culture references. Seeing Mason’s sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) fiddling on her iPod Mini lets you know it’s 2005, or hearing Arcade Fire’s ‘Surburban War’ on the radio tells you it’s 2010. It’s a small touch but it engages by asking for participation.

Unfortunately, this nostalgia is the only real connection to be felt. Mason comes across as a lifeless character who – not an exaggeration – only develops a personality halfway through the film. Prior to his psyche appearing out of thin air, Mason takes the backseat and rarely speaks while his sister, mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) enjoy the spotlight. Maybe this change in dynamic may be indicative of Mason’s maturation, but the adjustment feels jarring and disjointed.

Really, the transformation of Mason’s parents is far more engrossing. It’s easy to like them, care about them, and be pleased with their accomplishments after so many struggles. The emotion they bring carries the other characters, so much that the film could have been called Parenthood (unfortunately, that name is taken).

Despite the struggles and transformations of the characters, the film doesn’t have much plot. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because the focus is less on story and more on exploring family life, but the exploration is fairly shallow. The film doesn’t give any of its storylines more than a cursory look: developing a conflict, and then quickly fast-forwarding a year. Admittedly, 12 years is a lot to cover – even with the lengthy 164-minute running time – but when each conflict goes unresolved, the story starts to feel secondary to the concept.

All these faults are a shame because the premise behind the film is so intriguing. Despite Boyhood’s ambitious premise, the guts of the story don’t quite meet the ambition. While it’s still an entertaining watch, the film’s lack of an interesting an lead character and its failure to adequately explore a plot suggest a half-arsed story was thrown together purely to justify a 12-year production cycle. Ultimately, a very good idea has ended up a gimmick.

First published on PagesdigitalImage via IFC Films.