I don’t remember seeing any fiction film before this that made the growth of a young boy, and the child actor playing him, the actual theme of the film by actually filming the actor as he grows up. And to film that story over a twelve-year period is probably unique. I’m no film scholar, but none of the critical response to Boyhood mentions any other film that is even remotely like it.
Viewing the film, however, summoned up the memory of another work that did something similar, at least collaterally. For me, the story of “A.J.” Soprano, if separated from the rest of the series, can be understood as the story of how another young boy grew into young adulthood, and one that was told in a similar way. Robert Iler was only twelve years old when the series started, and for six seasons he portrayed a boy who grew up under circumstances that – most of us would agree – were pretty stressful. And certainly dramatic. We got to know A.J. pretty well during that time, and he was always fascinating to watch.
When we first meet “A.J.”, he is just twelve, and pretty rambunctious. He gets into mischief, like stealing wine from the chapel, and drinking it with his school pals. He lies about it, of course, and howls when he is punished. These are character traits we will see again and again: no impulse control, resentment, dishonesty. As A.J. matures, we find these negative traits plague him throughout his adolescence. He continually latches onto goals that he abandons almost immediately. By the time the series ends, in 2007, A.J. has formed a vision of the world that is hopeless and unforgiving. After a suicide attempt, he is hospitalized and begins therapy. Returning home, he is stabilized for a while, but soon takes flight in grandiose fantasies,i.e. becoming a helicopter pilot for Donald Trump. Physically, he is darkly attractive and even charismatic. But emotionally he is a wreck.
Quite a contrast from the hopeful, benign vision of Mason Jr.’s world. And yet, I grew to care about both young men. Mason Jr. seems to be equipped for a bright future. He is confident, independent and self-disciplined. His self-absorption is likely to be replaced by sensitivity to others once he starts a family of his own. We have every reason to think he will.
A.J., of course, is a different story. We are given no reason to think he will ever overcome the traumas of his upbringing. And yet, he is a compelling fictional character. So compelling, in fact, that I’ll confess to this: I’d sooner watch the story of his future life than Mason Jr.’s. Maybe it’s my own preference for dark themes and downbeat endings. Maybe I just find him more interesting.
I don’t mean to imply that one film is better than the other here. They are both so different, and have such different intentions, that a comparison on every level is ridiculous. But I think it would be wrong to ignore what The Sopranos did accomplish in A.J.’s story. There was an excitement in seeing how Iler kept growing into as well as changing the role. The change was due both to the writers’ conception of the character and to Iler’s physical growth into young manhood. Like Mason Jr., the dramatic development was intensified by seeing Iler’s physical growth from year to year. But the impact of seeing this development was even greater in The Sopranos, in a sense, because with each new season we were suddenly presented an A.J. who was at least several months older than he was when we last saw him, after waiting an entire year or more (and, boy, were we ever ready for it!).
There are other reasons why Boyhood loses steam. Once Mason Jr. is old enough to hang out with friends, and try to pick up girls, the film becomes like so many other teen-age stories. Linklater tries to keep the writing fresh, but it seems tired. The boys’ overnight party, in particular, adds nothing to the story. We never see most of those kids again, and we don’t miss them. A certain weariness attaches to Coltrane’s performance too, and you can’t help thinking he’s a little bored with the whole project. After all, each year he gets to play a few scenes, and then has to wait another whole year to find out what’s happened since the last one. At some point it had to become routine, and just another job.
But perhaps this sag was inevitable, too, because we knew how the story would end from the very beginning. We knew that something called Boyhood was going to be a celebration of a universal experience. Like with all celebrations, you know you’re going to feel good afterwards, that life is good and all problems can be solved. This boy – the guest of honor – will be bright, good-looking and have a good heart. He will be, in other words, a nice “average” kid. We sense that even with the repeated disruptions in his family life, the strain of having to keep changing schools, having to make new friends, that somehow he’ll stay the same nice kid we’ve gotten to know. Those problems, after all, are “average” ones, and seem made to order for this kind of story. Nothing really weird or disturbing will happen to make us uncomfortable. We know he will not get a life-threatening disease or be kidnapped by terrorists. And least not until after we finish celebrating him, and say goodnight.