Boyhood: Sundance Review
Richard Linklater's latest film is an epic about growing up, banal family life and forging an identity.
A unique work in American cinema, shot in 39 days over the course of 12 years, Boyhood is an epic about the ordinary: growing up, the banality of family life, and forging an identity. Everything here has been seen in movies and on television countless times before -- marital spats, a divorced dad trying to connect with kids he sporadically sees, teenagers acting out, parents having to let go -- but perhaps never has the long arc of the journey from childhood to college been portrayed as cohesively and convincingly as Richard Linklater has done in a film that can be plain on a moment-to-moment basis but is something quite special in its entirety.
IFC Films faces a tough challenge with this theatrically since, other than serious film buffs and Linklater fans, it's very hard to identify the audience that will come out for a two-and-a-half-hour observational chronicle of childhood; it's not really a film for kids, although they would relate to much in it, and many adults will shy away due to a perception that it is. Still, there is little doubt that, over time, Boyhood will be seen and deeply appreciated by viewers young and old on various formats and in different ways, with the end result that it will endure.
Every single aspect of the subject here has been grist for dramatists through the ages, as well as for endless sitcoms -- the bickering, small joys, misunderstandings, wedlock fissures, adolescent rebellions, first loves, the birth of artistic inclinations and emotional growth through pain and disappointment. Eschewing melodrama and farce, Linklater approaches all these subjects and many others in the same straightforward, unblinking manner, as parts of the grand fabric of life. What seem like huge issues for a moment can often be quickly forgotten, while tiny incidents can remain in the mind forever; it's the selective but cumulative use of seemingly arbitrary but significant experiences that gives Boyhood its distinctive character and impressive weight.
Linklater shot in short spurts periodically between 2002 and 2013, calling the name actors to Texas to join the locals playing the dozens of characters who come and go. This approach clearly involved some real risk, as, over such a long period, some participants could have died, become unwilling to continue or somehow evolved physically and/or emotionally in ways that might have been unsuitable for the story as the writer-director roughly conceived it in advance.
The film moves along from one time period to another without warning or announcement, and watching the aging process of the performers is inevitably fascinating. The two major professionals in the cast, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who play the divorced parents Mason Sr. and Olivia, thicken and mature gracefully over the course of the years. But where Linklater was really lucky was with Ellar Coltrane, a local kid who's cute as a little boy and, in his midteens, sprouts into a cool, thoughtful, slim and quite attractive guy. In a typical fictional film, it would normally require three different young actors to portray the same character over this age range; to see this one young man inhabit all these stages of Mason's life is unique and quite astonishing to behold.
The only comparison that comes to mind for this sort of extended real-life chronological continuum is Michael Apted's still-ongoing Up series, which has followed the group of original participants (with one or two drop-outs) over the decades. But that's a documentary. What takes a little getting used to in Boyhood is that, in fact, it is not a documentary. The initial passages, with Olivia picking Mason up from school and driving through town, Mason spray-painting graffiti on a wall, and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) being sassy, appear so verite-like that the written dialogue sounds rather stilted. This impression is forgotten once the kids' long-absent dad returns from Alaska, only to be assaulted verbally by the still-wounded Olivia (the reason for their breakup goes unspecified; Mason Sr. does come off like a tomcat, while he informs the kids that their mom is "a piece of work").
Living hand-to-mouth, Olivia moves the kids to Houston so she can go to college; they hate changing schools, as they will again down the line; Olivia marries again, to an overbearing professor with children of his own who turns out to be a violent alcoholic; the kids line up with hundreds of others in costume one midnight to buy Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; big Mason turns up again, takes them to an Astros game (Roger Clemens mows down the Brewers) and shakes his kids out of their sullenness by insisting they talk to him about real stuff; dad dragoons the kids into helping him campaign for Obama in 2008 (the "hope" is tangible); Samantha has her first boyfriend at 15, and Mason Jr.'s voice is suddenly deep when his old man takes him on a summer camping trip.
The smallest moments can be the most telling: The kids wondering if their dad is sleeping with a redhead who chats him up in a restaurant; Samantha's understandable embarrassment upon her dad's prying about her first romance; father and son's bonding over their agreement that the Star Wars franchise was finished with Return of the Jedi; Dad's advice to his son about how the best way to succeed with girls is to ask a lot of questions and then genuinely listen to them; and young Mason's crushing disappointment that his father has sold the GTO that, when he was kid, he'd promised to give him on his 16th birthday.
There are other, more overt milestones: Olivia becoming a successful teacher; the kids adjusting to yet another step-father -- an initially impressive and buff Iraq War vet who, like his predecessor, becomes an abusive drunk -- as well as a step-mother whose mother is a Jesus freak and father is a gun nut (both of whom could not be nicer); Samantha leaving for college, while young Mason develops a passion for art photography as well as for the most beautiful girl at school (Zoe Graham), whom he's lucky enough to have as his first girlfriend but who will also certainly break his heart.
With all the geographic, educational, parental and emotional adjustments Mason and Samantha are forced to make, they do pretty well , all things considered, which brings to mind the overriding theme of Francois Truffaut's films about children, which was their resilience. With all the childhood traumas, extreme behavior and tragedies that have been depicted in both narrative and documentary films over the last couple of decades, it's both bracing and refreshing to see more normal (if far from ideal) youthful experience represented in such a nonmelodramatic and credible way.
There are many indelible passages in Boyhood, along with a few stretches that are less than compelling, even boring. But the length suits the film's substance and the feeling at the end is of a rich, greatly rewarding experience. Certainly, Linklater, with all the other projects he pursued over the course of these dozen years, must have had his fingers crossed much of the time that this ongoing enterprise would work out all right in the end. It turned out as well, or better, than anyone could have logically expected.
Opens: 2014 (IFC Films)
Production: Detour FilmProduction
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella, Charlie Sexton, Jenni Tooley, Richard Jones, Karen Jones, Zoe Graham
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriter: Richard Linklater
Producers: Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland
Executive producers: Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss
Directors of photography: Lee Daniel, Shane Kelly
Production designer: Rodney Becker
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Sandra Adair
No rating, 164 minutes