'E' For Effort, C- For 'Boyhood'


The creek behind your house is littered with used grocery bags, old car tires and hundreds of really cool rocks just waiting to be discovered. Over the years you've picked out some great ones, including display-worthy geodes with gorgeous formations inside. 

One day, the local paper features a man setting off on a rock-hunting excursion in Alaska. He values a more "authentic" approach to exploration, so instead of flying or even driving, he's going to walk. A modern day Lewis and/or Clark.

Long after he's been forgotten by most everyone in town, the explorer returns. Speculation about the contents of his backpack dominates local conversations. A press conference is called, and the life's work of this brave adventurer is revealed:

One ordinary rock.

The townspeople are in awe. Reporters murmur before the first question is asked. "How long did it take you to find it?" one says.

"Twelve years," our hero claims.

The chatter among the press grows louder. They can't believe the incredible effort it took to find this treasure.

The mayor steps to the podium and quiets the crowd. "In honor of his momentous achievement, I hereby present this trailblazer with a key to the city, a Nobel Prize and my daughter's hand in marriage!"

All in attendance erupt with joy. The Greatest Rock In The World takes center stage at the city's museum. People stand in line for hours just to have their photo taken with the rock. But when it's your turn to pose for a photo, you can hardly muster a smile. 

"What's wrong?" your mother asks.

"I just...I don't get it. I have a bunch of cooler rocks at home. Prettier rocks, more interesting rocks, rocks with more depth. This is just...this is just another rock."

Your mother lets out a terrified gasp. "But what about how he spenttwelve years looking for it?" Others in line angrily await your answer.


*        *        *

If you haven't figured it out yet, Boyhood is the big, dumb, award-winning rock from Alaska. It's nominated for "Best Picture" at the Oscars this year, and it will probably win. 

So why the endless praise for an otherwise ordinary movie? The answer lies in the way Boyhood was filmed: a week or two at a time over the course of twelve years. It's an ambitious technique that allows viewers to witness actual, physical growth from the characters in real time. The dedication required to complete such a project is beyond impressive.

But the end result is still just a movie. A long, meandering and ultimately unfulfilling movie.

As we're yanked from one year to another, the story jumps just as abruptly. The boy in Boyhood, Mason Jr., goes through a lot during the nearly three-hour running time: a childhood relocation, an alcoholic stepdad, pressure from peers, another (alcoholic) stepdad who just doesn't get him, awkward interactions with grandparents, doubting teachers, girl trouble and, eventually, college.

Each of these challenges presents Mason with an opportunity to overcome, and the filmmaker with a chance to weave them together. Unfortunately, Mason mostly floats through them, and the scenes are only tied loosely under the giant umbrella that serves as the movie's title.

One scene in particular illustrates this frustrating lack of direction:

Classic troubled student-tough teacher interaction. The talented young mind is presented with the harsh realities of the real world. How will Mason rise to this challenge? Will he use this opportunity to show Mr. Turlington what he can bring to photography "that no one else can?"

Well, we never quite find out. Mason spends the game taking photos of just about everything but the action on the field. His friends convince him to leave early and go to a party, where Mason chats up a girl and drinks alcohol before returning home to an upset stepdad.

That's it. The darkroom scene is wasted. What could have been a profound moment in Mason's life -- and a turning point in the movie -- ended up being just a way to move one thing to the next thing. This scene may as well have not been included.

It's common feeling throughout Boyhood. Random story lines and scenes pop up, hinting at something larger, but are quickly abandoned when it's time for the next year's footage. One wonders if the creators felt obligated to include some scenes simply to justify their effort.

Like this one:

No context is needed for that clip, because none exists. It felt just as out-of-place in the movie as it does here. 

There is some attempt to tie this hodgepodge of experiences together, when Mason Jr. and his father (Ethan Hawke) are contemplating their lives before the son heads off to college:

Mason: So what's the point?
Dad: Of what?
Mason: I don't know, any of this. Everything.
Dad: Everything? What's the point? I mean, I sure as shit don't know. Neither does anybody else, okay? We're all just wingin' it, you know? 

It sounds like an exchange between two people who just saw the movie.

Still, it's probably Boyhood's best moment. Father and son trying to make sense of their choices and the things that have happened to them, putting a cap of Mason's journey from child to adult. It becomes clear that Mason Sr. understands his son better than either substitute father figure ever did. The scene is beautifully shot and wonderfully acted.

But it also excuses the mishmash of experiences we just witnessed by lumping them together as just "part of growing up."

This is the crux of the issue. When the story is simply "a kid grows up," it's easy to get away with a lack of structure, tension or a meaningful protagonist. Anything and everything that happens to Mason during this twelve year span falls happily under this umbrella, and the movie is amplified by the authenticity of the character's real-life growth.

At least, if you're into by that sort of thing. Like the explorer's generic rock, too much focus is on the behind-the-scenes effort rather than the final product. The use of different actors and fancy make-up wouldn't significantly detract from the viewer's enjoyment. The American Sniper holds a plastic baby, after all.

Ask yourself: If the creators of The Wonder Years (or Boy Meets World, for that matter) used deleted scenes to make a similar movie, what would the reaction be? The film would probably be more engaging and coherent than Boyhood, but it's doubtful anyone would hail it as a masterpiece.

It's okay to be unimpressed with this movie without discounting the enormous effort required to execute its concept. Even after a second viewing, I still can't help but think of what could have been: tighter story lines, obstacles overcome, clear direction throughout. Instead, we're left with Boyhood, where "We're all just wingin' it."

It sure seemed that way.

Tim doesn't know shit about film making or cinema or any of that. He likes movies though and occasionally has strong opinions on them.