Telling the story of a child growing up, director Richard Linklater provides the audience a glimpse into the life Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from boyhood to adulthood. Beginning with Mason Jr. as a six-year old and continuing onward through the beginnings of college, Mason Jr. experiences all the joys, anxieties and letdowns each child experiences within their life. Does a film that provides you with a fly-on-the-wall type experience deserve best picture as it seems positioned to win? No.
That's not a knock on the film as it is well-acted (for the most part) and provides the viewer with a sense of realism by not adding in unwanted plot developments. Instead, Richard Linklater lets the story play out in an almost natural fashion as Mason Jr. continues to grow. The problem is, there really never seems to be any conflict at stake. Mason Jr.'s mom Olivia Evans (Patricia Arquette) is a single mom who has been raising Mason Jr. and his sister Samantha Evans (Lorelei Linklater) after divorcing their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke).
Mason Sr. begins the story as a man who loves his toys and is not the father he should be to either child while Olivia seems to be getting her life in order. Olivia then begins to have relationships with stereotypical "bad fathers" while Mason Sr. begins to get his life in order. In the middle of this, Mason Jr. struggles with Olivia's choices for a male figure in the house while also dealing with struggling to conform within the boundaries of what life expects from him.
Shooting a film over a 12 year period is a Herculian task and Richard Linklater should be applauded for attempting such a difficult task and being able to keep all the same actors over the period of time. The male characters that Olivia attracts become your cliched trope of wrong choices: the alcoholic, abusing husband or the strict, military-type who disapproves that Mason Jr. does not want to follow in his shoes. These characters seem to be the only sense of conflict that Mason Jr. encounters, but are so stereotypical that it takes away from the naturalistic feel that Richard Linklater is trying to establish.
Along with that, the feeling that there really is no struggle for any of the characters leads (at least to me) a question of why I should watch. There really is no struggle and Mason Jr. is going to follow his own path no matter what gets in his way. The story moves along and may only glimpse some other conflict that Mason Jr. may be up against; then decides to skip ahead in time and we witness that Mason Jr. is continuing with his path in life. It feels like a "greatest hits" of someone's life instead of a full-length album. Yes, most of the beats are hit, but the film never made me feel fully-invested into Mason Jr's struggle with growing up.
There are plenty of things to enjoy about the film; Patricia Arquette and, especially, Ethan Hawke are really good in the film. I did appreciate the story line between these two characters and how they were handled. Ethan Hawke's character, for me, flowed most naturally and brought the film to life whenever his character appeared on screen. Patricia Arquette had a bit more a a typical Oscar-bait role as someone who tries her best, yet never seems to get what she wants. Multiple scenes of crying follow, yet her acting saves this character from being your typical "wife who chooses the wrong paths" type.
The last thing that should be mentioned is whether this film deserves Best Picture at the Academy Awards. Yes, the film was a daunting task and Richard Linklater deserves credit for that. The problem is, I think the people voting are confusing technical achievement with what film is best. Just because it took 12 years to complete this film, shouldn't automatically make the film a front runner for best picture. The film lacks conflict and at times just seems to meander. Yes, life is like that, but that doesn't make the film great. A film like Hoop Dreams did basically the same thing (only better), yet wasn't nominated for Best Picture.
If Boyhood wins Best Picture, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world, but I hope "best" and "technical achievement" aren't being confused when voting by the Academy happens.