Film Review: Boyhood

Believe the hype: Richard Linklater's decade-in-the-making epic is a remarkable achievement.

Much of the pre-release buzz surrounding Richard Linklater's coming-of-age saga, Boyhood, has understandably focused on the way it was made. Rather than shooting the film in a condensed three or four-month period with different actors portraying the central character, who ages from six to 18 over the course of 160-odd minutes, the always-inventive filmmaker allowed production to span more than a decade. Once a year between 2002 and 2013, Linklater assembled the same core ensemble—including Ellar Coltrane as the boy in question, Mason; Lorelei Linklater (the director's daughter) as his older sister, Samantha; and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his divorced parents—for roughly week-long shoots that offered brief windows into their ongoing physical, intellectual and emotional growth.

Technically speaking, of course, Linklater isn't the first director to preserve his cast's aging process on film. One of the pleasures of the Harry Potter franchise is seeing Daniel Radcliffe and his onscreen school chums begin the series as wide-eyed kids and eventually graduate as seasoned students of magical warfare. Similarly, a multi-season, family-oriented sitcom like “Full House,” “The Cosby Show” and, most recently, “Two and a Half Men” allows viewers to watch as those precocious, precious child actors evolve first into gawky, pimple-hiding teens and then lanky, glamorous young adults. And perhaps most famously, there's Michael Apted's ongoing nonfiction Up series, which has checked in with the same crew of English boomers every seven years since they were tykes chasing each other around a London playground in 1964. 

In other words, Linklater's shooting process by itself isn't what makes Boyhood special. The reason this film proves so stirring is that, despite the grand scale and grander demands inherent in its multi-year production schedule, the director has still managed to create a finished product that displays all the elements that distinguish his finest work, among them a love of language, a fascination with human behavior and a gift for spotting the extraordinary in the ordinary. Tasked with chronicling one boy's journey from boyhood to adulthood, another filmmaker might have made the choice to center each individual "chapter" around a major life event—first day of kindergarten, first time at Disneyworld, first kiss, first car, first job, first heartbreak. But Linklater heads in the opposite direction, gliding over those events in favor of incidents that seem less monumental in isolation—a trip to the bowling alley with Dad, a haircut, a walk home from school, a weekend jaunt to Austin—but resonate with meaning when viewed along the narrative's 12-year continuum. And without calling overt attention to them, Linklater builds specific moments into each of these installments that reflect and echo one another across the years. It's tempting to imagine a cut of Boyhood in which Linklater and his longtime editor Sandra Adair treated time in a more elastic fashion, cutting back and forth between the past, present and future instead of marching resolutely forward. That approach might have sharpened some of the movie's observations about the way the impact of even minor events can ripple outwards, while also navigating around the lulls that can crop up in this kind of episodic structure.

But that version of this story would also rob Boyhood of one of its chief virtues, namely the ability to witness the steps of Mason's maturation in sequential order and, more affectingly, glimpsing the boy he was in the man he becomes. Furthermore, the movie's deceptively simple chronological editing scheme masks some very rich filmmaking on Linklater's part. The early passages of Boyhood are directed in a distinctly observational style, with the camera hanging back and watching as Mason is placed in situations that require him to react to various external conflicts. (That haircut, for instance, is instigated by his alcoholic, abusive stepfather during one of his frequent rages; and in another bout of anger, this man strikes Mason's mother to the ground—a blow that the boy himself doesn't see, though he is privy to the aftermath.)

But as Mason ages and starts to more actively engage with the world around him, the movie's rhythms change as well. The sequences towards the end of Boyhood are dominated by the kinds of long, fluid takes glimpsed in Linklater's Before trilogy, with Coltrane and his various scene partners chatting up a storm while walking around scenic locales, much as Jesse and Celine do in those beloved talkathons. (It's striking to think that the director helmed both Before Sunset and Before Midnight during the same period he was working on Boyhood.) And while there are practical reasons for this evolution—when Linklater started the film in 2002, he was working with a young and relatively inexperienced actor who couldn't be expected to memorize pages and pages of dialogue—it also captures a fundamental reality of growing up that's rarely dramatized this effectively. When we're children, we're sponges, soaking up all we hear and see without necessarily being able to articulate its impact. As the years pass, though, we find our voices and use them, speaking our minds to the initial delight and, later, resigned weariness of our parents and other authority figures.

That change is crystallized in a trio of beautifully realized scenes between Mason and his father: As a boy, Dad encourages him to open up and share more details about what's happening in his life; as a pre-teen, they go on a camping trip during which Dad indulges Mason in extended conversations about the kid's limited interests—i.e., girls and Star Wars; finally, as an adult, father and son talk as equals about their families' past and Mason's future. Those sequences also touch on Linklater's ongoing fascination with interpersonal communication (a subject he's explored since his breakout first feature, Slacker), which additionally manifests itself in a subtly woven thematic thread concerning the way technology has evolved in the first part of this young century. In the ancient days of 2002, Dad primarily talks to his kids during his court-mandated visitation periods. As cellphones become more ubiquitous—and Sam and Mason become old enough to become entrusted with their own—those visits are supplemented by long-distance calls and texts. And in 2013, face-to-face conversations are fewer and further between, replaced by smartphone-enabled Facetime sessions. As with all of Boyhood's era-specific details, from the music to the fashions, there's never a sense that Linklater and his crew are struggling to recreate a bygone time period by hauling out old pieces of technology to use as set dressing; thanks to the movie's shooting schedule, almost everything glimpsed in the frame in a given scene was contemporary at the time that scene was shot. In that way, the movie never feels like a period piece—after all, the cast and crew were always working in the present.

One of the other challenges that Linklater faced in making Boyhood was crafting a coming-of-age story that would feel both universal and specific. And while the film beautifully evokes some of the shared experiences of growing up, an argument could be made that the details of Mason's life aren't exceptionally compelling. While he faces his fair share of challenges—child of divorce, cash-strapped household, drunken stepfather, frequent moves, another drunken stepfather—his goals and interests mostly develop along white, heteronormative hipster lines. (Not only does he acquire a passion for photography and indie rock, but he also enjoys knocking back a pot brownie before heading off on a nature hike.) Dramatically, those character beats are less immediately compelling than, say, a boy who realizes he's gay and has to decide how and when to come out of the closet or a Latino or African-American child butting up against institutionalized discrimination.

In fact, even within the world of Boyhood there are several characters who are just as interesting, if not more so, than Mason. Take his sister, Samantha, who develops her own artistic leanings that are expressed through colorful paintings and even more colorful hairstyles. (Needless to say, she also has a significantly different relationship with her mother and father.) Thanks to the movie's conceit, though, Sam always remains just outside of the spotlight, an intriguing personality we're destined to never get to know as well as we might like. But the character who most demands her own film is Mason's mother, Olivia, portrayed by Arquette in a complex, multi-faceted performance that isn't always well-served by Boyhood's limited point of view. Olivia plays many roles throughout her son's life and the movie—devoted young mother, overworked student, ambitious career woman, melancholic empty-nester and unlucky-in-love serial dater, who keeps thinking she's met Mr. Right only to inevitably discover that he's Mr. Wrong.

It's the latter personality trait that the film proves most ill-equipped to explore in any substantive way, with the end result being that, intentionally or not, Olivia comes across as, at best, willfully blind and, at worst, distressingly foolish in matters of the heart. It doesn't help that Linklater allows Mason's father—who isn't exactly a paragon of moral virtue, though he is at least allowed a successful second marriage to a non-alcoholic spouse—to effectively have the final word on their relationship, suggesting that if only Olivia had been a bit more patient with his younger, stupider self, she might have avoided her string of bad romantic choices. And while the movie stops short of wholeheartedly endorsing that line of thinking, Arquette's soulful performance merits a closing rebuttal.

On the other hand, because so much of Boyhood is filtered through Mason's ever-evolving eyes and mind, it stands to reason that his mother is going to remain something of an unknowable figure, one he won't fully understand and appreciate until he's 30 or 40...and maybe not even then. From my vantage point as the father of a seven-year-old who is just embarking on the 12-year odyssey chronicled onscreen, Linklater's deft depiction of what children seek from their parents—and what parents seek from their children—at different stages of their lives is illuminating and only slightly panic-inducing. That's where the director's warm, heady humanism comes to the fore; Boyhood is ultimately about the creation of an individual consciousness, from its first stirrings of self-awareness to the moment when, having absorbed all it can from the collective, it asserts its own identity. Perhaps the scene that's lingered in my mind the longest is a simple shot from late in the film that finds a college-bound Mason driving down the highway, the sum total of his boyhood packed into three boxes stashed in the back of his truck. It's an image that's at once both sad and hopeful. Sad at the knowledge that 12 years of life can so easily fit into a trio of cardboard containers. But hopeful at the understanding that those boxes only house small mementos of the larger experiences we'll always carry with us.

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