A film review by Craig J. Koban September 13, 2014

RANK: #3

 Rank: #1


2014, R, 164 mins.


Ellar Coltrane as Mason  /  Patricia Arquette as Olivia  /  Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr.  /  Lorelei Linklater as Samantha

Written and directed by Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD is the very reason I go to the movies.  It’s a remarkably intimate, awe-inspiring, and touching celebration of human life, which is all the more special considering that all too many modern films seem to take great relish in glamorizing the taking of it.  

To simply label the film as a “coming of age drama” almost doesn’t do it any justice at all.  On paper, BOYHOOD chronicles the upbringing of a young lad from his elementary school days all the way through high school and concludes with his introduction into the college life.  Many past films have followed such linear story trajectories, but Linklater has more audacious and risky tricks up his sleeve.  His film’s overall approach is what makes it such a stark, trailblazing and groundbreaking original.  This is a work that will be talked about for years. 

The Austin-born Linklater has made a career of focusing on the microcosms of his everyday characters (from his introductory effort SLACKER to his 1970’s high school comedy DAZED AND CONFUSED to his BEFORE trilogy), but nothing on his past resume matches the sheer scope, ambition, and raw courage of his aesthetic choices in BOYHOOD.  In order the cover the vastness of his main character’s story, Linklater has the same actor portraying the main character from his childhood to late teens.  

That’s right.  No special effects.  No makeup.  No sleight of hand movie fakery.  He called upon his child actor – and other child and adult actors – to shoot the film over the course of 12 years, crafting the story in little one-plus week shooting sessions every year, and then later editing all the footage together to create a vast near-three hour portrait of the boy’s life.  At a budget of just $5 million, there’s more genuine and natural movie magic on display here than there was during the entirety of the last TRANSFORMERS film that cost nearly twenty times as much.  In total, BOYHOOD was shot over the cumulative course of 39 days during the last decade-plus.  What we are left with is a film of epic breadth, but ultimately intimate focus as it allows us to be fly-on-the-wall observers of the child’s everyday comings and goings. 



I will endeavor to relay the basic plot of the film, even though it may barely scratch the surface.  Ellar Coltrane (just 7-years-old when the production began, a remarkably intuitive and natural screen presence) plays a Texas boy named Mason, brother to older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the actual daughter of the director, whom also grows up on screen alongside her co-star).  When we first meet the siblings they are living with their single mother (a never-been-better Patricia Arquette) that is desperately trying to make enough money to pay the bills and keep a roof over her family’s head.  Her husband (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke) is a well meaning, but somewhat irresponsible man that has been largely an absentee father; he hasn't been around for his family much because of his recent journey to Alaska in search of work.   

As the film slowly, but surely progresses we begin to realize the passage of time for Mason and his family, but not with obligatory title cards that dutifully point out “two years later” and so forth.  No, Linklater makes the time jump transitions refreshingly instant and seamless throughout the entire film, allowing for the physical changes in the actors (young and old) to help tell the viewers that we have been whisked forward in time.  Every ten minutes or so we move forward not only in the story, but also in time, and each little vignette displays all of life’s small and large complications – as well as pleasures – for Mason.  As we continue to travel through his life’s journey over the years we also see the continued struggles of his mom to make something of her own life (she has not one, but two shaky marriages to chronic alcoholics while trying to get a college degree) while his Dad continues to try to become a more active participate in his children’s upbringing.  As for Mason and his sister?  They go through all of the trials and tribulations associated with growing up as we all do: their bodies and voices change, they hit puberty, they discover a fondness for members of the opposite sex, and unavoidably begin to tackle life’s biggest question: What am I here for? 

The greatest films, in my estimation, deal with what in means to be a self-actualized, but always questioning person in this complicated world.  BOYHOOD is no exception: Mason’s journey is our journey as well, and the manner that we can all relate, in some form or another, to the character’s insecurities and anxieties is always palpable.  Linklater is intuitive enough as a filmmaker to never craft scenes of overblown melodramatic sentiment, nor does he slavishly dwell on individual vignettes for too long.  Instead, he crafts a documentary-like feel to the proceedings; everything is loosely shot with a free-wheeling spontaneity that helps to echo how Mason makes the long transition from being a precocious and naïve 6-year-old to a somewhat cynical, but hopeful 18-year-old on the cusp of adult maturity.  It’s impossible to overlook that, yes, we have the same actor growing up on screen as his own character does the same.  It gives BOYHOOD a startling sense of immediacy that is lacking in so many previous genre efforts that have typically used multiple actors to play the same role at various stages of the character’s life. 

It’s abundantly clear early on that Linklater made a huge score in landing Coltrane, who was unable to sign an actual film contract (due the fact that it’s illegal to sign a performer to a contract for a period of more than seven years on a single project).  Everything on the film was done in committee and on the good will and promises of Linklater, and that’s an extraordinary level of trust for any actor – inexperienced or not – to place in a filmmaker for so long.  Coltrane crafts an effortless performance of raw authority; he’s not so much acting, per se, as he is inhabiting the moment, but he creates a fully realized portrayal of the aging Mason full of vulnerabilities, contradictions, and inquisitiveness that have typified all of our lives at some point.  It would be easy to overlook the adult actors in the film as well (they also age 12 years over the course of the film and change emotionally and physically), and Arquette and Hawke commit themselves to their respective roles in manners that few other mainstream Hollywood actors would.  Arquette gives the film a soulful melancholy as she continues to battle her own nagging insecurities about herself even when she achieves occupational success, but I also found Hawke’s father character so atypically rendered.  He could have easily wallowed in neglectful paternal figure clichés, but Linklater’s script respects the character more than that.  Like Mason, Hawke’s father also goes on a journey throughout the film to find his place in the world.  The message here is universally touching: it’s never too late no matter how old one gets. 

I’m not really sure what else to relay about BOYHOOD other than to say that this is one of the rare filmgoing experiences that made me feel richer and fuller as a person for having experienced it.  How many films, dare I ask, take you along for the ride of showing a boy become a man…and with the same actor as the character on this tender voyage of development?  I also left the film thinking that what Linklater has done here is also inordinately risky, if not brave (imagine, God forbid, if any of the actors died throughout the production?).  Inevitably, it’s hard to emerge from BOYHOOD and not hail it as breathlessly innovative film that has not only changed the way that films are made, but also how one views and experiences films.  This one’s an undeniable game changer and a quietly rendered masterpiece filled with soul, warmth, and humanity.  It makes us want to invest in and empathize with its characters and, in the end, reflect on our own upbringings in the process.  I’ve never seen a film that captures the wonderful ebb and flow of a life as well as this one.   


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