“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.
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.
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.
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”)