To say Richard Linklater’s latest film Boyhood was highly anticipated is a gross understatement. Whispers of a movie that featured a main character aging in real time – a 24 for the Roger Ebert wannabes – had been swirling for years, earning the film an almost urban legend status. Would we ever see this cinematic Bigfoot?
Yes, we would, and yes, I did. Full disclosure: I am a big fan of Linklater’s work. I saved my pennies to buy the special edition Criterion Release of Dazed and Confused, and I’m always quick to point out that he directed School of Rock (I know, right?), so I was ready to blindly adore his latest. However, I left the theater feeling hesitant, wondering if all the film really had going for it was the gimmick of time lapse. I mean, the film currently carries a 99% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I had to be wrong, right? What was wrong with me? Why didn’t I connect with Boyhood?
Let’s establish one thing right off the bat: I don’t dislike Boyhood. I’d watch it again, and I’d encourage others to see it. There’s no bad blood. In The Princess Diaries, Mia Thermopolis imagines her first kiss culminating in a “foot pop.” I expected the same pop from Boyhood, and like Mia, whose first foot pop-less kiss was ambushed by paparazzi, I didn’t get what I had anticipated.
At its core, Boyhood is a pretty basic story: a young boy on the road to adulthood who faces some bumps along the way. Single mother? Check. Cool alternative father? Check. Drunk step-husbands plural? Double check. From moving to first loves to applying to college this film filled every square on the coming of age bingo board. I can’t think of one thing depicted in the film that I haven’t seen somewhere else before (well, maybe one thing – Lorelei Linklater’s performance of “Oops I Did It Again” was genuinely delightful.) The plot was a trite hodgepodge of tropes that have been seen since the dawn of time. With a bumper crop of emotions, I couldn’t find a single one with which to connect. Save for the moving out segment towards the end of the film, I was never really touched by what was happening in any direct way.
Is that what growing up is? Not everyone finds an alien in the woods or goes to a school for wizards. Things are basic at times. And what about the real time filming? It certainly adds another layer to the film, but can it be that something special that takes it to the next level? As far as I’m concerned, we can’t have this discussion without mentioning The Blair Witch Project.
Boyhood and The Blair Witch Project have more in common than you’d think. Both films take a basic plot (in Blair Witch‘s case, your run-of-the-mill witch in the woods campfire story) and jazz it up with a unique filming technique. Blair Witch might seem dated now, but anyone who is even mildly aware of pop culture after the late ’90s knows the ripple effect the film had. The film was clandestinely watched on VHS at many a sleeve, many sleepless nights were had and the found footage genre as we know it was born. I’m willing to applaud The Blair Witch Project regardless of its plot, which is – lets be honest – really dumb, but I just can’t throw my support behind Boyhood in the same way. Maybe all roads don’t lead to Rome. An interesting technique for the sake of an interesting technique does not a good movie make (see: Apollo 18, The Devil Inside, The Last Exorcism). So although it is impressive, praise cannot be heaped on Boyhood simply because of the feat Linklater chose to undertake and the way he chose to tell the story.
The reasons behind my feelings aside, I can’t shake the fact that I have them, and they’ve come with a side of guilt. I am in the small minority in my opinions on the film. Since the film’s release, I have read countless articles and tweets praising it from both critics and my peers. LA Times film critic Kenneth Turan recently published his review of Boyhood, and he shares my dissenting opinion. Turan points out, “The fuss about Boyhood emphasized to me how much we live in a culture of hyperbole, how much we yearn to anoint films and call them masterpieces, perhaps to make our own critical lives feel more significant because it allows us to lay claim to having experienced something grand and meaningful.” And in that quote, he looked into my soul.
I now find myself on the opposite side of the aisle. Usually, I’m the one heaping praise at films or TV shows (by the way, you should all be watching Masters of Sex). But if I love everything unconditionally, then what’s the point? How do I know when something has truly touched me? I’ll take my trouble with Boyhood as the first in a long line of critical discrepancies over blind devotion any day.