It might be a bit late to talk about Boyhood but it’s a film I’ve really wanted to talk about ever since I started reviewing films. I started reviews films in text form in 2014, and shortly after I did, I was hearing tons of buzz about a film called Boyhood. Now, at the time, I was preparing to write an article on the Oscars in 2016 since I was giving my thoughts on all the films that were going to be getting nominations, which involved me watching all the Best Picture nominees, and I was hearing a lot about this film: it was an “amazing piece of work”; it was a “marvel in filmmaking”. In short, people thought it was great piece of cinema… And I did not like it. I think I gave it a pass at the time for the simple fact of what it was and how ambitious it was, but I’ve since grown to really not like this film.
I think part of it has to do with my thoughts on director Richard Linklater. I’ve never really been a fan of his films; they just seem to me to be films that think they are cleverer than they actually are. Still, they seem to do the job, and before you suggest to me that my bias against Richard Linklater might be clouding my judgement, I will point out that there are several films he’s directed that I actually do like. School of Rock is probably one of my favourite Jack Black films and probably the time he was most perfectly cast, I actually kind of like Me and Orson Welles, and his adaptation of A Scanner Darkly is one of the best Philip K Dick adaptations out there. Even if I do find the film a bit of a confusing mess at times, I do have to praise just how well it was put together to tell the story of the book. So, Boyhood for those not in the know is a slice-of-life film which was shot over 12 consecutive summers with the same cast and would tell the story of a family growing up over that time period. In short, it was a major gamble – you can’t go back and reshoot, you have to stick with the same cast, and they’re not necessarily all going to be great actors as they grow up, so the fact that this film even exists is somewhat of an achievement. But the fact of the matter is, it didn’t do anything for me; this film really bored me to tears.
People will then say, “Well, you obviously aren’t really a fan of slice-of-life as a genre,” but here’s the thing, I kind of am a lot of the time, and I think I found a film that really does that job really well and barely anyone knows about. It’s a film called Whisper of The Heart that was produced by Studio Ghibli, and the screenplay was even written by film industry legend Hayao Miyazaki, though he did not direct, that was handed to Yoshifumi Kondo. The film tells the story of a middle-school student in her final years and a sense of self-discovery through several scenarios – all the books she wanted being checked out by someone she has never heard of in her school, as well as coming across an antique shop after she follows a cat to it to discover that the boy at school she thought was a jerk is a skilled violinist and she’s pre-judged him. From there, and her fascination with a statue of the Cat Baron in the shop, she decides to become an author and puts all of her effort into writing a book. Now, even if you talked to Anime fans and even fans of Studio Ghibli you won’t find many people talking about this film. This one has kind of been swept under the rug; it does not often come up in conversation about Ghibli’s best work. And that’s a shame because in my mind it’s one of their better films and probably one of the best slice-of-life films I have ever seen.
So, at this point, I’m going to talk about 5 reasons why I don’t like Boyhood and counteract it with a reason why Whisper of The Heart does it better and is worth more of your time. Let’s begin.
In short, Boyhood does not really have one; it really is just the life of these characters. Now, that could have worked but for reason number 2, it does not quite work, and as a result it’s all a bit of a buzzkill. I was actively wanting there to be more of a plot to this film. The fact there is not kind of suggests the idea that the script was being written as the film was going. As a result, it does not feel like a film that has a beginning, a middle and an end. In fact, the ending just feels like the film stops; there is no real climax to Boyhood. It starts with the main boy at a young age and ends with him in University, and even then, at the point I was expecting it to end – which would have been a nice way to send off the film – it just kept going. Again, I’ll get back to that point later.
What’s more, Boyhood also has a real issue with the fact that, because not much is happening, you’re really getting a sense of the fact that it’s a little too realistic. I kind of was really hoping that some sort of plot was going to kick in, but at about the halfway point I kind of realised it was not actually going to happen. There’s not much character development for any of these characters. You can have a slice-of-life story and have character development. The film I think tries to boast a similar theme to Whisper of The Heart – both films have an idea of finding your identity in something you’re good at, and your experiences making you who you are from both the good and the bad. Whisper of The Heart even adds a certain sense of learning from failure to succeed later. But in the case of Boyhood it feels tacked on – again, this does feel like a film that was being written as it was going along. In fact, quite a few plot points are actually dropped partway through. One of my favourite parts of the film was at the point when Patricia Arquette’s character was married to the alcoholic professor from her college who eventually revealed his true colours and started treating everyone like crap because it actually felt like the plot was finally kicking in, but then partway through the film they just leave and it is never mentioned again.
Now, take Whisper of The Heart: it has a very good 3-act structure (beginning, middle, end) and it actually commits to its themes. Yes, it is about Shizuku becoming an author and having that ambition, but it also has lots of different subplots and they all feel like they’re well thought out: The rather awkward romance with Seiji and their interactions; the fall out with the fact that her best friend’s crush does not like her and it involves a massive love-triangle; the budding fascination with the antique shop owner who’s Seiji’s grandfather and a keen violinmaker who she is desperate to impress with the book. There’s a lot more going on and they all have resolutions. Granted, Whisper of The Heart also has the same problem as Boyhood in that it doesn’t really have an ending, it just kind of ends and is, probably out of all the Ghibli’s films, the one with the most abrupt ending. Though I suspect that might have been an issue with the fact they were translating a source material. Ghibli films often don’t have that issue since they usually are not adapting other people’s work. The point I’m making is that Boyhood is a film which is trying to have a plot but does not really have one. There are a lot of moments which are set up to indicate they’re going to have a plot, but the film never commits to it, and whatever themes they were going for feel half-thought, whereas Whisper of The Heart feels like a fully thought out screenplay.
I Could Not Tell You Much About These Characters
Boyhood’s characters just are not there. If you’re going to do a film about slice-of-life and simple day-to-day moments, you need to have good characters and preferably characters that even will develop as the story goes on. It is possible to do that, but that does not really happen in Boyhood. I would have to look up the names of most of the characters because I could not tell you them off the top of my head or what their character was all about. The main boy has virtually no personality; I could not tell you a thing about him despite this being a film about him and him growing up, but he is the most unremarkable character to follow. You just remember the character as archetypes, like the sister, both of her alcoholic boyfriends, Ethan Hawke who’s the kid’s dad, and Patricia Arquette who plays the mum, arguably the most compelling character in the entire film (no wonder then that she ended up winning Best Supporting Actress for a role in this). I mentioned before that they sort of set up these character arcs, but they surprisingly feel rushed if they ever feel like they get off the ground, and they’re rather bland. Hell, I couldn’t even really tell you what happens to half of them by the end of the film – there are a ton of characters which are introduced in the movie that later just sort of disappear. Now, this might have been down to the fact that they couldn’t get some of these actors to come back, and that would be a fair point.
Then we take a film like Whisper of The Heart where, in that film, I remember virtually most of the characters and their arcs. I remember everything about Shizuko, Seiji, her best friend Yuko, Seiji’s grandfather Shiro; there’s all sorts about them. There’s the fact that Seiji acts like a bit of a jerk but he’s actually a very talented individual who has trouble expressing himself to other people. You’ve got the fact that Shizuko doesn’t really know what she wants to do with her life, which is a very common personality trait for someone at that age, especially during a major transition in your life which is what Shizuko is going through. You have real personality-building scenes. I could not really tell you much about some of the scenes from Boyhood but I remember very clearly Shizuko, Seiji and Shiro performing ‘Country Road’ on their instruments in the shop’s basement. We’ll get back to that later. The point is you need good characters and good character arcs. Whisper of The Heart really has a lot it; Boyhood just doesn’t, and as a result the film is not that compelling (and when we get to number 4, that’s really going to create a problem).
The Use of Pop Culture Isn’t As Interesting As They Think It Is
Boyhood was shot over 12 summers, and to tie into that there is a lot of use of things that were popular at the time to make the point of when the film was taking place as a way of showing the transition of time. You’ve got the kids watching Dragon Ball Z or the boy using a Gameboy Advance, then when the film is taking place a few years later he’s using a Nintendo DS instead because that was the next console to take over. There are a lot of references to songs that were charting very highly around that time; there are a lot of references to news stories which were going on around the time period.
Here’s my problem: they don’t serve much of a narrative purpose, they just exist to show the transition of time. Cool in theory but in practice it is actually rather annoying – it almost feels like the directors are winking at the television, going, “Remember that?” It doesn’t really add anything and it kind of sticks out. I saw a review of Boyhood when I was researching this that said they found it weird that Nintendo would give out a product placement for a product that was going to be out of circulation and production by the time the film came out, which brings me to another problem I found with the film: it dates the film poorly. I feel like it doesn’t really add a timeless quality to the film, and I think Boyhood would have succeeded better if it had a timeless feel to it. Instead it feels like it’s an exhibit of a lot of moments of the noughties and some of the early 2010s.
Now, pop culture doesn’t play too much of a factor in Whisper of The Heart except for one point, the John Denver song ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Now, you all know that song, but it serves a particular purpose in the film for several reasons. For one, it’s actually a decent choice of song. It is slightly dated in its referencing, but it represents something that a lot of Japanese teenagers go through at that time – obsession with American culture. We like to think of Japan as being this very insular culture that has very much its own identity, influenced by itself and not much outside sources, but there are a lot of people who have a very big obsession with American culture, and pop culture in particular. The song plays a factor in several ways: Shizuko and Yuko practice singing it and have trouble translating it, which leads to a bad translation joke which does not work in the English dubbed version of the film; it’s the song that Shizuko and Seiji perform together which brings them closer together; and you have the fact that it’s used in the opening and closing credits. But it actually serves a purpose within the narrative as it’s a song that everyone likes and binds them together and it’s a part of the story as a whole; it doesn’t feel like it’s tacked on at any point.
Then we come to one of my biggest problems with Boyhood…
It’s Way Too Long
Boyhood runs at 165 minutes. That’s 2 hours and 45 minutes. I didn’t get to see Boyhood in the cinema, I ended up watching it on a flight coming back from America when I knew I would have enough time to watch it without anywhere to escape, and on flights I tend to have a much larger tolerance to longer films. It’s probably why I didn’t like Zero Dark Thirty so much on a second viewing when I saw it on the ground. But even then, Boyhood was way too long – you could cut 30 minutes of this film and I don’t think you’d lose much. Hell, if you want to keep the structure and the time periods all in place, cut it by 20 minutes. Seriously! I was begging and pleading this film to end. By the halfway point when you realise this film is going to have absolutely no plot whatsoever, I was really begging for it just to end sooner rather than later. And as I mentioned, there was even a point where it looked like he was driving off to University and that would be the end of the film, but it still goes on for like 10 more minutes! I don’t care! And then the film just suddenly stops. The fact that there’s not much character development means that what was already a long runtime feels like it’s even longer; this film feels like it goes on for three hours. And considering it doesn’t have much of a plot, it also makes the film really, really boring. Whisper of The Heart is very sensible – it goes on only for 111 minutes, and while I wish they kind of had a slightly better ending, it at least does not feel like it overstays its welcome. It’s perfectly paced and as a result feels like it runs at a good amount of time – it never feels boring and I didn’t feel like anything should have been cut from the film. But I feel like I have to go onto my next point…
It’s All A Bit Of A Gimmick
The one thing Boyhood really has going for it is the sheer feat it was to shoot the film over 12 years, with the same cast, watching them grow up with the film. Here’s the thing though: if you took that out of the mix, this film would not get anywhere near the level of recognition it did get. It really has not much going for it once you take that out of the mix. Linklater had a vision for this but I don’t think he got beyond the sheer concept of it, and I think that really shows in the fact that not many people talk about this film anymore. And unlike Whisper of The Heart, which I also have a problem with in that not many people talk about it, it’s not because it was overshadowed by other films and some of its contemporaries. The fact Boyhood did not win Best Picture probably didn’t help but I think everyone got over the gimmick and it really died down. I’m just kind of glad that it’s in that state as I don’t think it deserves as much of the recognition it got, and the fact that it took someone reminding me that this film exists really brought home to me that this film is largely forgotten. And I think as the years go on it’s not going to be remembered as much because, well, its gimmick is really what it has to hold onto.
Now, Whisper of The Heart I think will have a similar problem, but the studio it was made in was established on fantastical storytelling and did a very good job with it. As a result, it’s got people to really talk about that studio and so, as a result it’s going to live on in some fashion. Granted, it’s probably always going to just have a small or a cult following; it’s never going to achieve the sort of critical success of a film like Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away or Howl’s Moving Castle. But the sheer fact that those films exist, there will be people that will go through the collection and find this film. As a result, it doesn’t really need to rely on anything – the reputation of its contemporaries will mean that people will eventually find this film and it will hopefully stick with them. Ghibli obviously saw something in this because it was the only Ghibli film to receive a sort-of sequel with The Cat Returns, which was basically what Shizuko’s book would have turned out like when she kept up her writing. So, yeah, absolutely see Whisper of The Heart.
But I want to hear your points. Did you like Boyhood and have a counterargument to my points? I look forward to reading some of them in the comments.
Share This Post: