The mystery of growing up explored in uneven ‘Boyhood’

“Boyhood” (2014). Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Libby Villari, Marco Perella, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villarreal, Barbara Chisholm, Brad Hawkins, Angela Rawna, Jenni Tooley, Tom McTigue, Zoe Graham, Richard Robichaux, Roland Ruiz, Charlie Sexton, Maximillian McNamara, Jessi Mechler. Director: Richard Linklater. Screenplay: Richard Linklater. Web site. Trailer.

Figuring out what makes life work occupies much of our time and attention in our formative years. Coming to understand the world around us and how it emerges into being is a formidable task for our young minds, especially when it doesn’t seem to make sense. A noble attempt at broaching that subject provides the focus of one of the summer’s most anticipated new releases, director Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

Growing up is quite an experience, to say the least. It’s a time for learning about the world in all its magic, mystery and wonder. And observing how that process unfolds before us is something we each go through in our own unique way.

For six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), that odyssey begins in a household headed by their divorced single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who struggles to provide for them. But caring for them is indeed difficult, and out of seemingly incessant frustration, she at last resolves to better their circumstances by moving the family from their small Texas town to Houston, where she plans to enroll in a local university to complete her college degree. The move also gives Mason and Samantha an opportunity to reunite with their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a would-be musician and jack-of-all-trades who has recently returned to the Lone Star State after an extended stay in Alaska trying to find himself. The kids are thrilled to have both parents back in their lives, but the likelihood of mom and dad reconciling is almost assuredly too much to hope for.

As Mason and Samantha grow older, their lives begin to change, especially when Olivia remarries, this time to Bill (Marco Perella), one of her professors. In addition to a new father figure, the children also have new step-siblings in their lives, Randy (Andrew Villarreal) and Mindy (Jamie Howard). But this new sense of domestic bliss is quickly shattered when it becomes apparent that Bill is an abusive, alcoholic control freak, a development that leads to yet another disruptive uprooting.

Olivia’s plan to complete her degree program succeeds, and, by the time Mason and Samantha are in their teens, she lands a teaching job at a small university in the college town of San Marcos. And, as Mason enters his adolescence, he begins defining himself as an artist and photographer, one who has a strong observational curiosity about life and all it has to offer. He begins to become his own person, despite the changes his family members go through, such as his mom’s new relationship with a returning Iraq War vet (Brad Hawkins) and his dad’s marriage to a sweet new wife, Annie (Jenni Tooley). He even finds a love of his own through a relationship with his high school sweetheart, Sheena (Zoe Graham). And, before long, he’s ready to leave the nest as an 18-year-old college freshman, completing the cycle of what we call boyhood.

If much of this sounds rather ordinary, that’s because it is. “Boyhood” charts Mason’s personal growth and evolution, illustrating the kinds of experiences we all typically go through by following the protagonist over a 12-year span in his life. We watch the young Mason grow into the adolescent Mason and finally the adult Mason before our eyes. We also witness his parents and sister grow older as they experience their own unique journeys, and they all do so against the backdrop of the events of the times that occurred during the picture’s protracted filming schedule, adding a touch of temporal realism that further serves to define the project’s sense of authenticity.

Mason’s reactions to his circumstances impliedly illustrate his conscious creation skills at work. His reactions to what he draws into his life shape the beliefs he uses to further characterize the reality he experiences on an ongoing basis. He learns lessons and formulates responses to everything from the mundane, such as taking responsibility, standing one’s ground in the face of oppressive intimidation and dealing with consequences of repeating mistakes, to the extraordinary, like staking a claim to one’s destiny. All of this serves to define his personal growth and evolution and his continual exploration of his constant state of becoming, an experience that those around him share as well.

Interestingly, as an observer and documentarian of his existence, Mason creates works of art that reflect what he sees, which, in turn, are reflections of the beliefs he puts out to create those manifestations in the first place. His physical creations thus mirror the mirrors of his inner self, and the film chronicles his journey in coming to understand this concept and how it’s reflected in what he materializes in his life, especially artistically. It’s an intriguing example of art imitating life and vice versa, twice over.

As lofty and ambitious as these notions are, however, unfortunately, the film doesn’t live up to its objective (or its hype) as well as it might. In fact, perhaps the picture’s greatest accomplishment lies in its intent to push the boundaries of cinematic creativity, something director Richard Linklater is known for. In doing so, the filmmaker has created a picture unlike virtually anything else (except perhaps Michael Apted’s “Up” documentary series and, of course, the long-running and eminently enjoyable TV series The Wonder Years).

However, the film’s novel approach isn’t enough to overcome its innate episodic nature and its pedestrian performance by a dull, insipid protagonist surrounded by an array of characters who are far more interesting than he is (particularly Arquette and Hawke, who are clearly at the top of their game here). The insights the picture offers come too few and far between and aren’t especially revelatory when they do. All in all, “Boyhood” is an underwhelming effort that leans a little too heavily on its own self-congratulatory nature. It would make a decent option for DVD viewing on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but it’s certainly not worth nearly three hours of premium-priced theater time.

The process of self-discovery and the discernment of the meaning of life are grand adventures, to be sure, which is why it’s disappointing those notions failed to receive more engaging treatment in this cinematic offering. Employing an inventive approach to the subject, though laudable, unfortunately is not enough to do justice to a crucial rite of passage we all experience, one that shapes our views, beliefs and outlooks for what the real test that follows – and that will be with us for the rest of our days.

Copyright © 2014, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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