I don’t want to be your hero: A Review of Boyhood

by jessicamathers


(Photo courtesy of IFC Pictures)

I just wish it could have been better. I just thought there’d be more. These are not only Olivia’s heartbreaking final lines of the film, but also my own as the lights once again illuminated the relatively young faces of those sitting in the quiet L.A. theater at 12:30am after a movie that has been heralded as one of the most extraordinary films of the 21st century.

And it is, at least conceptually. The appeal for me, certainly, was the fact that Richard Linklater, who directed and co-wrote the Before series, which is without a doubt some of the most truly extraordinary filmmaking I have experienced in my inexperienced film-watching life, gathered a group of actors and asked them to tell a story for 12 years. As we unprofessional actors of the world (unpaid, of course, despite the acting skills required in life) often feel, we are not telling our own stories day in and day out. No, we are instead merely alive as the pages are being turned by the revolution of the earth, by the natural passage of time. That is not to say that we are not Really Living, or that we are not experiencing our own cinematic magic moments on occasion, but we were not directed by Linklater, by God, by an Unseen Force, to tell a story fit to be told.

So was Boyhood a story necessarily fit to be told? I don’t know. There wasn’t anything extraordinary about the story itself, after all. And for some, that adds to the initial appeal of the film’s concept. “The mundane prevails,” one reviewer says, and the oft requoted line by Mason Sr. that we are all just winging it anyway is a touching line for viewers who do indeed deeply feel that that is What Life Is All About. Life is not an orchestrated story, but in every sense Boyhood was an orchestrated story, with a script, with a director, with plans for certain moments. Of the film, Ethan Hawke says, “Life is beautiful and interesting enough as it is, and you don’t need to manufacture a lot of falsehood.” What a romantic statement, yes, but I also came to the film to get lost in just the right amount of falsehood. Instead, I got a film that, although by its very nature of being a film had to be false, felt almost too real during certain moments and too orchestrated in others.

All of this said, by far the most pleasing part of this story was watching Mason (and, by default, Ellar Coltrane) develop his own unique sense of self. Most of the nearly three-hour running time showcases Mason, who puts the “Boy” in “Boyhood”, as a, well, boy. Hawke says of the young actors that play his children in the film that at first everyone is just “watching them at first kind of just being little kids who kind of do cute things,” and then suddenly they become “contributors.” Hawke is here describing their contribution as actors, but this statement transcends the acting and transcends the film itself. We can all relate in not just a mundane way, but also in a magical way to once being kids “who kind of do cute things” to being Real People who have talents, who have interests, who develop skills, and who are capable of having a profound effect on the world around us. Mason is getting there by the end of the film and it is truly a pleasure to witness, but his final line, which is slightly cringe-inducing albeit amusing, suggests that he still has a lot to learn.

In the end, it is clear that Linklater did not want any of his characters to be your hero. He just wanted them to fight like everyone else. Some will appreciate this humble aspect to the film, and others will wish there’d been more.