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'Boyhood' is only impressive in theory

**1/2 (out of four)

Movies are so much more than a concept. “Gravity” was an amazing onscreen achievement, but the script was lousy. It’s not a great movie—what’s impressive is the fact that Alfonso Cuaron pulled it off.

To a degree, the same goes for “Boyhood,” which writer-director Richard Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years. Unlike Michael Apted’s series (docs checking in with the same people every seven years) or Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (following the same characters every eight or nine years), “Boyhood” filmed a little bit with its cast for more than a decade. We don’t just meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as an elementary schooler. We’ll see his voice change and watch his rites of passage, like sucking at bumper-free bowling, peer pressure to drink and lie about his sexual experience and trying to be himself, even when it means acting like an ass.

Here’s the thing: None of the moments in “Boyhood” are bold in suggesting the experiences are universal. Linklater isn’t deconstructing our communal stepping stones; he’s merely reminding us of them. It’s easy to watch the film and recall similar moments in your own life. That’s not enough; the film needs to inspire reflection, not just recollection.

Linklater pal Ethan Hawke plays Mason’s dad in such an Ethan Hawke-y manner you think he’s still being Jesse from the “Before” movies. Patricia Arquette’s a bit stiff as Mason’s mom, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays Mason’s older sister, Samantha, who opens the movie annoying her brother by singing and dancing to Britney Spears’ “Oops! ... I Did It Again.”

Which brings us to another problem with “Boyhood”: The movie constantly marks years with popular songs, opening with Coldplay’s “Yellow,” pausing at, among others, Outkast’s “Hey Ya!” and Phoenix’s “1901” and winding up at Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Music is obviously important, but to show the characters constantly listening to the most popular songs turns the movie into a dramatization of life, not an authentic portrait.

Throughout the film, Mason experiences minimal joy, sadness or surprise. Perhaps that’s because Linklater wants to show that for many, years are made up of the mundane, not the peaks and valleys. That may be true, but when charting significant experiences between 6 and 18, it’s ridiculous not to include the most resonating sorrow and elation that shape who he or she becomes. When Mason’s mom marries a college professor who turns out to be an abusive, alcoholic jerk, “Boyhood” becomes cartoonishly melodramatic.

Again: Everyone has seen someone play a solo acoustic version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Linklater deserves credit for following through on his ambition. But it’s worth wondering how much the way the actors grew influenced the trajectory of the movie. If Coltrane hadn’t grown into a good-looking fellow, would Linklater have been able to make Mason a bit of a ladies’ man? And, more importantly, why does the movie feel like a list of experiences instead of a moving exploration of life?

Originally published during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival

Watch Matt review the week's big new movies Fridays at noon on NBC.

mpais@tribune.com

 

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Copyright © 2015, RedEye
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