Back to Boyhood

I consider myself a huge Richard Linklater fan. Before Sunset is my favorite film, Dazed and Confused is an annual watch and I’ve made the argument that his ability to make the trippy, tense A Scanner Darkly and something as genuinely sweet as School of Rock proves Linklater as amongst the best directors working today.

When Boyhood arrived with its critical consensus and already being in the bag for Linklater, I was positive the twelve-years in the making project would be an instant classic. Then I didn’t love it. Not only did I not love it, I barely liked it. This came as quite the shock. It couldn’t merely be all of the hoopla and acclaim, nor the long gestation period. I first read about the movie in 2008, but that was only a handful of years. 2013’s Before Midnight I was salivating for since its predecessor in 2004, and it too arrived with to a golden chorus.

Some of the praise for Boyhood always hit with me strangely. The big one is about what the movie isn’t; lacking any major deaths and not featuring stuff like prom or Mason’s first bike ride. Firstly, Linklater’s movie does feature bits of this. Mason’s first meetings with both stepfathers are there, as is the moment his mom decides to leave the first of those men. We additionally get the day of his graduation and his first day of college. I’m not saying those scenes should or shouldn’t be in there, but to praise the film for what it isn’t, when it in fact is that at points, seemed peculiar. Secondly, the notion that he didn’t take an easy way out by having a clear dramatic event, while admirable, does not a great movie make.

All of this is a long way of saying my reaction to Boyhood has been in the back of my head since I first watched it. I didn’t yearn for a backlash, though I did long to have someone tell me I wasn’t crazy for having issues with it. My main critiques were basic; Patricia Arquette is hit-and-miss in her performance, the step-dads are both melodramatic and that Mason was too generic a character, more an amalgam of childhood situations versus an actual person. All of this coalescing into an ambitious, if underwhelming, feature.

I knew I was going to watch the movie again. I love Linklater too much to not giving this opus of his a second shot. This was spurned on further more by the recent dismissal it has garnered in various spots of the internet, calling the movie awful for a number of reasons. So this weekend I popped Boyhood into the old DVD player and saw if it’s spell might be cast upon a fresh viewing.

I don’t love Boyhood. I can see getting there. The back-half if the movie is far stronger than I recalled after Mason gets deep into his teens. It has some of the relaxed magic Linklater is known for, where shadings of a person’s personality can be seen by how he or she talks. The growth of Mason into the young man he becomes is better defined than I expected. Mason digs into the books/movies he loves as a child, looking for what semblance they have in real life, which transfers to his passion as an artist. His father’s influence on his personality is also more vivid than I had remembered too.

What of my problems? I do think Patricia Arquette’s work as Mason’s mom is less immaculate than it has been called. She is very good in a few scenes, particularly the quieter, kinder ones. Her big blow-ups though still feature overacting that jolts one out of the reality Linklater does his best to weave. The stepfathers are a mixed bad still. Their weakness had calcified in my brain, making me think their every scene was lackluster. Each one arcs nicely, with the second’s sternness evolving carefully, even if the dialogue is a smidge cliché. Marco Perella is a misfire as the first stepfather, always going for the obvious sourness of the part and none of the nuance. The character still feels off, it’s just the acting that seems to blame now.

Overall, these concerns are remarkably smaller than they had grown to be in my memory. Linklater’s knack for ensembles is rewarding here. The little things like the uncomfortable relationship between Ethan Hawke and his former mother-in-law Libby Villari pays off to sincere effect in the movie’s last act, as does the relationship between Mason and his sister. There are simply a plethora of treasures I had let, unintentionally, fade from memory. The depths earned in that chunk of the movie where Mason and Samantha spend time with their father’s new family is beautifully honest. It could easily mock a group of older religious folks for a quick laugh. Instead, Linklater sits in the reasons for their alternative mindset, having the discomfort sit as unfamiliar and not bad. We learn a profound amount about these characters there.

What I’m saying is that I was wrong about Boyhood. I truly look forward to giving it a third go-around. I look forward to, possibly, loving it.

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