Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is groundbreaking as ‘long-form’ storytelling in film

One of the advantages that television has over film is the advantage of long-form storytelling. Many long-running dramas are procedurals, like the Law and Order and NCIS franchises, which means that there’s a case of the week, and the only part of the show that remains constant is the characters, but they usually change all the time. The most recent “Golden Age of Television” has seen an increase of serialised dramas, culminating in The Wire, with each season of the show functioning more as a novel, with episodes in chapters, and the whole series is a giant omnibus. Serialised shows have the advantage of telling a longer story, but also character development. Before Boyhood, the closest thing film had seen to long-form storytelling with character development was in adaptations of books, like Harry Potter. Richard Linklater’s Before series also looks at the development of characters over time, tellingthe story of a couple in various stages of their relationship, but each of the three films functions as a snapshot whereas Boyhood is more like a collection of memories (I stole this from Jeff Cannata at the /Filmcast, because it’s the best description of the film I’ve heard so far).

Boyhood tells the story of Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), as well as his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) as he grows up in seemingly every town in Texas, while his father (Ethan Hawke) flits in and out of his life. As has been well documented, Boyhood was filmed intermittently from May 2002 to October 2013, to show how Mason and Samantha have grown and changed over time. This film is a drama, but other than during a few moments, the drama is very-low stakes, like my favourite family drama, Parenthood. From what I understand this film could have been much longer; the way it was edited creates that fantastic sense that it’s a collection of memories, specifically the memories that were most formative in Mason’s life. I liked that there were characters who remained constant whereas others seemed to just disappear because that’s what happens in life (though there was one aspect of this I wasn’t a fan of is something I’ll be discussing later). Some people have said the cultural touchstones felt too obvious, but given that I grew up slightly earlier than Mason, I appreciated the memories that those touchstones evoked, particularly the release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Patricia Arquette’s story was just as interesting, as she begins the film as a single mother struggling to pay the bills, and earns two degrees and becomes a teacher through the course of the film. Ethan Hawke’s journey is the most fascinating, as he evolves from absent father/musician into a responsible man working for an insurance agency – the sort of man that Olivia would have liked him to be, but he wasn’t ready to have children when he had them. Perhaps the greatest strength of the film is that it just ends when Mason gets to college. There’s no big finale where storylines are all tied up, just a sense that he’s entering another stage of his life.

I liked Boyhood a lot, but I didn’t love it (given that I knew it was up for so many awards and people waxed lyrical about it, I thought I should see it as soon as possible), and I did have a couple of problems with it, and most of those things are related to the storyline written for Olivia. Patricia Arquette embraced the struggle of a single mother beautifully, and it helps that she has been in that situation herself. I found the fact that she seemed to keep entering relationships with drunks who were initially charming a bit tiring. It makes sense for her overall journey and her breakdown at the table in her apartment just before Mason leaves for college, but it’s my desire as a viewer to see her in a happy relationship even if that’s not how this film works. I also don’t like that we never found out what happened to Mason and Samantha’s step-siblings, whose names I don’t remember, after Olivia removed her children from her abusive husband. Again, I understand that it’s something that just happens in life, but it would have been more interesting to see them again than the restaurant manager at the end of the film.

Even though I didn’t love Boyhood, it is a film worth seeing, particularly if you like to keep up with the awards ceremonies. Given that Boyhood won three awards at the Golden Globes this week, it’s currently a punter’s favourite for the Oscars, and I’m glad I managed to see it when I did (it was practically a miracle that I could find a cinema showing it). Still, an imperfect, emotional film is much more interesting to me than a film that is tweaked too far that it’s no longer interesting, and I’d rather watch Boyhood for that reason. Also the creation of Boyhood over twelve years is a fantastic testament to what film can achieve, and it’s worth watching just for that.

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