REVIEW: “Boyhood”

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“Ambitious” is an adjective that is probably overused by many when reviewing movies. As a result many well-known and prominent movie critics steer clear of the word and often view it as a negative description of the film. Their idea is that many people excuse a film’s faults by hiding them under ambition. That may sometimes be true, but I’ve never prescribed to that reasoning nor do I avoid using the word when it accurately describes a film. There are plenty of examples of movies that have combined great ambition and great storytelling. “Boyhood” is one such example.

Let’s talk about the film’s ambition. Writer and director Richard Linklater has shown himself to be one of the great modern American filmmakers. In “Boyhood” he gives us a coming-of-age drama unlike any you’ve seen before. Filming spanned twelve years starting in 2002 and the same cast was used the entire time. They were brought back to shoot scenes periodically throughout those twelve years in hopes of capturing an accurate physical representation of aging. It also allowed the cast to grow with their characters making the film’s time transitions all the more realistic. This is an extremely ambitious project.

 

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But it isn’t just the clever and innovative approach that makes this a good film. It’s Linklater’s simple but beautifully conceptualized vision for presenting a young boy’s life from preadolescence to early adulthood. There is no distinct streamlined plot. Instead we are introduced to a young boy named Mason and we experience his complicated, topsy-turvy boyhood with him. Linklater doesn’t ask us to dissect or wrestle with the material. Instead he seeks to show us the complexities and minutia of real life. He wants us to invest in Mason and let his circumstances strike an emotional chord. We laugh with him. We fear for him. We worry about him. Essentially we grow up with him.

Mason is played by Ellar Coltrane, a relatively unknown actor who was 7-years old when filming began. Coltrane has a quiet reservation about him that we consistently see in every stage of Mason’s life. It’s an acting quality that gels nicely with Linklater’s vision for the character. When we first meet young Mason he is living in Texas with his older sister Samantha (played by Richard Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei) and his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). His father Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) reappears after over a year doing his own thing in Alaska.

Mason’s life has its share of obstacles and it starts with his parents. His mother works hard to provide for Mason and Samantha. She moves them to Houston where she finishes her degree and gets a good job. But her loneliness leads to bad choices which effect her children. Mason, Sr. is a flaky and irresponsible father who won’t get a job and doesn’t always provide a mature fatherly influence during his time with his kids. In a sense Mason and Samantha’s time with their father is an escape. Mason, Sr. clearly hasn’t been a good father, but he loves his kids and they recognize his good intentions. As the film harmoniously moves along we learn more and more about these characters and we watch them and their circumstances evolve.

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At times “Boyhood” feels like a series of random moments sewn together to form a beautiful whole. We often move from scene to scene without any narrative connection between them. But that’s okay because the film is about the journey. We literally watch Mason (and Coltrane) grow up before our eyes. One minute we see a young boy laying on the couch asking his father about the existence of magic and elves. An hour later we watch a 16-year old get into his Toyota pickup. It’s such a visually satisfying trip through time brought to life through Linklater’s brilliant approach, Sandra Adair’s impeccable editing, and the cast’s unquestioned commitment.

Speaking of the cast, I’ve talked about Coltrane being a great fit as Mason and he only gets better as he transforms from a first-grader to a college freshman. But Patricia Arquette is the one getting a ton of attention and rightly so. This is a such a strong and honest performance , significantly better than when I first saw her years ago in “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3”. She doesn’t offer an ounce of pretense and she never overplays her scenes. And as you would expect Ethan Hawke is really good and you never doubt the truth he brings to his character.

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The only performance I struggled with came from Lorelei Linklater. In her defense she is considerably better by the end of the film but by that time we rarely see her. Prior to that I felt she was forcing her performance and she looked like a young actress who was having every line, every look, and every expression drawn out by the director. I also struggled with these odd and sometimes clunky political sequences that pop up several times. At first they feel like a natural extension of a particular character. Later the politics and characterizations seem forced and very heavy-handed. This stands out mainly because Linklater is such an instinctive and precise writer.

Those things aside, what is it that great movies do? They challenge us. They cause us to reflect. They cause us to appreciate. They cause us to feel. “Boyhood” did all of that for me but not in a casual sense. It is a coming-of-age story but it also looks at other things like parenting – the sacrifices of good parenting and the consequences of bad parenting. As a father, that hit home for me. The film had me looking back on my own childhood, but also thinking about my 13-year old son and the life he is living. Walking out of the theater I wanted to hurry home, give him a hug, and tell him that I loved him. Some may call that corny. I call it being moved by a very good movie.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

(Fun observation for “Dazed and Confused” fans: Pay close attention to the brief scene in the liquor store. The clerk is played by none other than David Blackwell. He played a very similar convenience store clerk in “Dazed”)

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36 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Boyhood”

  1. Great read Keith, I enjoyed it. This is my favourite film from the past year and I still love reading about it! A fantastic achievement by Linklater and his cast and crew. Nice to see the editor get some praise too.

    • Thanks a lot man. I have been wrestling with words for this film for several days. It has really stuck with me. I’m hoping to see it again Monday night if time allows. You’re right, this is a remarkable achievement and it’s not a film I will soon forget.

      • Definitely worth a second viewing. I saw it on my own at first and then insisted on taking my wife to see it a month or two later. Enjoyed it just as much second time, but could concentrate more on the links between years and other ongoing thematic points of interest.

      • That is exactly what I’m hoping to do. I’m really wanting to see it with my wife. I’m letting her choose between Boyhood and Interstellar. She has seen neither. I’ve seen both but want to revisit them.

      • Sigh. I am in a rural area and it’s difficult to have access to many films. This is one. I have to drive at least an hour. I have heard about it from movie buff bloggers; I know I will like it. I just have to wait for it to come out on Direct TV or Netflix. My goal for 2015 is to see more movies in the theater so I can review a film from the present instead of a film from the past. Wish me luck 😉

      • I completely understand and sympathize. I’m a little over an hour away as well and that keeps me from seeing some films as quick as I would like. It stinks.

        As for Boyhood, I think it hits DVD January 9th (or somewhere around there).

    • Thanks so much. I really responded to this film in a variety of ways. If everything goes well I’m hoping to see it again tomorrow night. It’s truly unlike anything I’ve seen before.

    • That’s very well said. This is a movie that impresses the most when you take it as a whole. It has so many good individual moments but it’s true power is shown through the entirety of Linklater’s vision.

      Appreciate the comments.

  2. Great write-up mate. The ambition pays off – seeing the boy literally age in front of your eyes is one of the most immersive cinema tricks I have ever seen!!

    I’m pretty sure I gave it the same score. Though… it doesn’t feel like a movie I’ll watch again soon.. Usually I watch most films at least twice. It did though stick in my head, there is no denying its awesomeness ;D I’m pretty sure Sight & Sound mag made it their top movie of the year too. Amazing stuff

    • Thanks for kind words. Appreciate the comments. What Linklater pulled off is nothing short of amazing. This thing could have gone terribly wrong. Instead it’s one of the most effective and unique coming-of-age dramas I’ve seen. Glad to hear it worked for you as well. It’ll definitely have one of my year end Top 10 slots.

      • Agreed. What really struck me were the flashbacks it gave me – so many rites of passage that a young male goes through… This movie really evoked some long lost memories. It isn’t heavy on the drama but it somehow doesn’t need to be… and the fact I didn’t even notice how long it was is a big plus.

        I’m not sure if it will make my top ten. There really has been a ton of great movies this year, I’d struggle to make a top 20!

      • Hey Jordan thanks so much for reading and sharing your thoughts. You’re right, it doesn’t milk dramatic scenes or depend on coming-of-age tropes. It legitimately does its own thing and I really responded to it.

        As for the movie year, it has been an interesting one. The first half of the year had me wondering about it. But over the last several months I’ve seen so many good films. It has been a wonderful year for cinema.

  3. Nice review, Keith. Yeah, I understand what you mean when it comes to the connotations associated with the term ambitious, but it really does apply to this movie. Though there were some things that bothered you that I didn’t really have a problem with. The daughter for instance, to me at least, just came across as an obnoxious older sister, as opposed to an over-actor. And I actually did like the little nods to the time period we were in, even when some of them were political. It really just kinda worked as a way to show us not only how this kid was growing up, but gave us a nice glance at the ever evolving world around him that he was growing up in. But I dunno, I thought it was a nice touch at least. Even so, all in all, very impressive movie. 🙂

    • Thanks reading and I really appreciate the comments. This is definitely a film worth talking about.

      I didn’t really have a problem with how Mason’s sister was depicted. For me it was strictly the performance. I’ll give you an example of what I’m trying to say. The scene in the bowling alley where her Dad (Ethan Hawke) talks to her about condoms. She’s embarressed, a very nature response. But young Linklater really struggled with bringing those feelings out. Everything from her line delivery to her mannerisms seemed so stiff and forced.

      And I didn’t mind there being politics there. It was just how some of that was handled. Everything else in the film is so natural and true. But then you have a scene like the guy with a confederate flag on his carport who basically threatens the kids over an Obama sign. The whole exchange felt like it belonged in a different film.

      Still, this is a fabulous film and I am hoping to see it again tomorrow night. I haven’t been able to get it out of my head!

  4. This was a brilliant film, nothing like what I had seen before. The coming-of-age stories generally involves some sort of struggle. But this film portrayed everything real and nothing was done over-the-top, even the struggles seemed real. Also Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette were awesome. I have been a big fan of Linklater and this movie didn’t dissapoint me at all.

    • I’m with you 10O%. There are several standard coming-of-age directions that this film could have went. It goes its own direction. It truly is about like, about growing up on the most basic and realistic levels. Great film.

      Thanks for taking time to share your thoughts!

  5. It’s so weird, because this film felt like one that was made for me, since I’m all about these kinds of slow moving family dramas, and yet I really did not connect to this at all. I wanted to care, but I couldn’t. The aspect that everyone (you included) seems to adore about this (the lack of real plot, the way it moves almost without focus, the snapshots of life) was the one aspect I hated. I felt like Boyhood gave me nothing to care about. It was just there…and when it was over it wasn’t there anymore.

    Still, I’m in a very small minority. I appreciate the gimmick here, the ambition, but when you take that away your not left with much at all.

    • Completely respect your take on it. Lord knows I’ve certainly been against the majority opinion on several films this year.

      I think it works so well for me because it never feels false (other than some of political scenes I mentioned). The characters feel real. Their circumstances feel real. But I think the film wins me over when taken as a whole. Once I was able to sit back and process it as a whole it clicked for me. I just loved the journey. I cared about the characters and was really wanting to see what happened next.

  6. Great review Keith! Nice to hear the ambition and experimental approach pays off for Linklater. It’s nice that it’s more than just a gimmick too, but that you truly felt like you ‘grew up with’ Mason throughout the film. The film is quite long thought right, so I’d have to be in the right mood to watch this I think.

    • Thank you Ruth. You’re right. It is a long movie but I never felt it at all. It flew by. It is definitely more than just a gimmick. That’s always a concern though, isn’t it. You can’t put it past filmmakers to use any gimmick they can to win viewers. But that is definitely not the case here.

      Hope you get to catch it soon. It is supposed to be out on DVD in early January (I think).

  7. An unquestionably unique and glorious film experience. I couldn’t believe how much I liked this film; it’s between this and Nightcrawler for me at this point. How many times has Linklater come up with a cool concept for his films? I love this man!

    Outstanding review Keith.

    • Thabks so much Tom. I have a Nightcrawler review written and ready. But as for Boyhood, I just webt and rewatched it and wow! Itnis as you say – a glorious film experience. Linklater does it again.

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  10. I’m with you blown away. It reminded me of Hoop Dreams and how these small moments make up a life. It’s not movie for entertainment but to get you to think about your life. I thought it was brave of Arquette to show how a woman ages. This is me at 28 and here I am at 40. I loved small moments like the teacher in the dark room trying to motivate Mason. It makes me sad that so many missed what is special about it. Oh well. Their loss

    • Sooo true. It’s a shame Boyhood didn’t win Best Picture but it makes sense. It isn’t flashy or showy like Birdman. It doesn’t stroke creative egos. It’s a beautiful and personal film that will stick with me. I just love it.

      Thanks for the comments!

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