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(Credit: ICF Films)


Why 'Boyhood' by Richard Linklater is severely overrated


The coming of age story is Richard Linklater’s bread and butter, with the American film director having carved out a niche for himself in the 1990s with stories of disaffected, rebellious youths, from Slacker to Dazed and Confused. Tapping into the zeitgeist of the time with a meticulous eye and sprightly energy, Linklater became the icon of subversive cinema and helped to herald a new era for independent cinema in America, supported by his legion of long-haired, teenage philosophical thinkers. 

So when the director announced the arrival of a 12-year project named Boyhood in 2014, audiences were understandably excited, with fans hoping that he could recreate the bohemian edge of his ‘90s projects. Filmed over the course of over a decade, Linklater’s film captured the life of a boy, played by newcomer Ellar Coltrane, from childhood to adolescence, growing up alongside his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) until he flies the nest at the end of the film and seeks his own adventures. 

Though, whilst Boyhood contained such trademark Linklater ingredients, from his longtime collaborator Ethan Hawke to his fondness for the meaningful coming of age tales, the film was devoid of the same rousing punk aesthetic that had so well underlined his previous works. Instead, despite its critical success, Boyhood was a diluted, saccharine adventure that felt fine-tuned to the tastes of the American Academy rather than the free-spirited attitudes of his established fans across the world.

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Presented as a unique Hollywood marvel, the reality of Linklater’s grand 12-year experiment is that the tool at the centre of his film is, in reality, a mere gimmick that has no impact on the weight of the film itself. Seeing the protagonist, Mason, as well as his mother and father grow up before your eyes is impressive, like flicking through a photo album and seeing progressive characteristics, but it’s only truly engrossing if you indeed ‘know’ and ‘understand’ the subjects in question. Without this impact, the impressive cinematic trick is nothing but a gimmick. 

Sprawling and unfocused, the story hangs onto the coattails of the protagonist with a wearisome lack of purpose, as Linklater characterises his subjects using chart music, video games and pop-culture references to mark them as mere pinpoints in the history of the 21st century. At three hours long, Linklater bloats Boyhood with noble ambitions, though seemingly forgets to instil his protagonist with any notable traits that would morph them into a compelling lead character. 

This certainly isn’t helped by the performance of Ellar Coltrane who becomes increasingly more disinteresting as the film goes on and his boyish charm dissipates, transmuting into a dull Linklater archetype with long hair, faux-philosophical views and an unfortunately monotonous voice. For an actor who is supposed to lead the film with crucial urgency, it is through the support of his co-stars Hawke and Arquette, playing his mother and father, that carries the film into more profound territories. Spiking the nostalgic coming of age tale with their own wistful longings of youth, it is the story of ‘motherhood’ and ‘fatherhood’ that proves far more interesting than the bland monotony of the film’s core story.

It is certainly not through a lack of enthusiasm or ambition that Boyhood doesn’t work, though it may be through a certain overexertion of effort. Linklater’s ‘90s efforts, Slacker, Dazed and Confused and SubUrbia work so well despite being fueled by a certain withdrawn disaffection as they are genuine, taking time with the characters to create a mosaic of thoughts and feelings. Boyhood simply doesn’t carry this innate capability, falling apart under the weight of its own sheer conceit.