The quest to see Richard Linklater’s latest work, Boyhood, has been a surprising pain in the ass. Originally slated for semi-wide release on July 18, I found out that no theaters within the vicinity of Miami were screening the film. Nor in South Florida it appeared.
Incensed by this betrayal, I was able to locate a free screening and attended it with a friend. We found out that same day that the movie was to get a wider release finally in Miami within that Friday, a week after it was publicly slated. I’m guessing they were hoping for the movie to spread word of mouth.
Well, it will work well in its favor, regardless of pissing me off. I saw the movie anyway. That was last week. By this point, Boyhood should be wide-released enough for this review to make a difference and so I begin.
Most of you should be aware of what the movie is, but just in case: The movie follows 12 years in the life of a Texas child, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), as he grows from Elementary School to his first experience in College. In the midst of it, he deals with growing pains and especially the separation and strife of his high-strung working single mom, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his lax liberal father Mason Sr. (Linklater-alum Ethan Hawke).
What really sets this movie apart from most coming-of-age stories however is how it was shot. Over 12 years, between 2002 and 2014, Linklater and the cast and crew would come back together briefly each year to shoot some more of the film. It’s not entirely a new trick of Linklater’s to come back to characters after a few years – his brilliant trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight have already proven his awareness of how to evolve characters respectfully and believably, though it is pretty much the definition of an ambitious project – akin to Fitzcarraldo, The Tree of Life and Cloud Atlas. In its simplicity, more subdued and reserved than the projects mentioned, is where the real distinction and challenge comes for the film.
My first realization is that the character of Mason Jr. reminded me of my 20-year-old brother by the end of the film and the character of his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the daughter of the director) my 16-year-old sister. So I had that personal attachment to it. It may seem a weird aside to begin on…
But, that’s kind of the point – that Boyhood has a very huge demand for recognition all throughout its length that keeps audiences involved. They see themselves in it.
In the background of most of the movie (sometimes obnoxiously with very attention-demanding shots or scenes that seem like afterthoughts), Boyhood carries itself like a time capsule with little hints or markers – like the soundtrack all throughout the movie or the tv content on in the back of the living room or a poster on a wall – that helps us keep track of where we are (Considering how much pop culture iconography and music is used for this, I wonder how much of the budget went to securing the rights for those). In the main limelight content of the film, however, most of the things Mason Jr. goes through are elements of life that people know well within their own childhood and the movie makes an effort to capture as genuinely as possible – hanging with friends, moving having a significant other, our first breakup – even in the attempt to make Mason Jr.’s life explicitly eventful. It feels non entirely unlike how we felt reading the Harry Potter series, watching this boy grow up to be the man he is now.
Which is one of the few confusing factors of Boyhood. Richard Linklater is himself no damn stranger to this type of storytelling – the whole community slice of life format. His movies, especially his best works like Bernie, the Before trilogy and Dazed and Confused, despite very sneakily carrying a narrative underneath them, constantly have the essence of a movie that is just idling by like life does. Even his more wackier concoctions like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly had a real “well, this is how living with these guys in this neck of the woods feels” atmosphere, despite the forefront being the style than the substance. (If I had to pick a film of his that strictly followed a narrative construct, it would undoubtedly be School of Rock).
But the real charming factor of Boyhood is how we really know Mason Jr. is not somebody special. He’s not a heightened display of life, he’s not a destined protagonist, he’s just a kid just like we were.
So, there’s nothing wrong overall with segments of the film showing him idle while some pretty big development moments that are occurring around him, rather than to him, such as his dad’s very brilliant evolution as a person over the film or his mother’s several re-marriages. It’s actually classic Linklater visual language that we are used to, with shots of conversation arranged as a Kodiak portrait passed as a stageplay.
It is instead moments like, particularly trying to mention these without spoiling too much, the latter half of Patricia Arquette’s first remarriage or a visit in the latter act of the film they receive in the restaurant from a character that appeared in only one other scene, that seems overly forced and unnecessary for the experience of the film. It pushes the film into Lifetime-tv-movie status and unfortunately drags the film down a few notches. It is that heightened factor that Linklater was supposedly avoiding.
However, what makes moments like that in their spontaneity and after-thought plot essence (each year was written right before they shot it with the actors involved with Linklater, sometimes even the night before) is really the game performance by every actor in the lead family.
Arquette (the actress that stands out most – particularly near the end of the film where she has a brief 4-minutes of actor graciously carrying the scene that reminds me of the Tom Hanks’ final moments in Captain Phillips in its gravitas), Hawke, Coltrane and Linklater all carry their own distinct personalities into this divided family unit, but – and maybe it’s a product of the time they spent together enough – I can totally buy that these characters are related to each other.
Much more to the point, each actor, save for Linklater, seems to be aware of their character’s own growing arc and very methodically changing bit by bit, year by year. I don’t know how much of that is actually coming from Coltrane’s own life – I know, for example, that a particular conversation Mason Jr. and Mason Sr. about Star Wars came from the two actors actually talking about Star Wars, that the truck Mason Jr. owns is Coltrane’s actual truck and suspect a certain fashion style he adopts halfway through the film might have been Coltrane’s own work – but it fucking works. It’s real and it feels for real because it’s real. And it, in itself rather than as a product of the cinematography (which I barely paid attention to, to be honest) is beautiful to watch. If anything to state against the actors, it is merely that Coltrane as he grows up seems a lot more hushed and less interesting as an adult than he is as a child, but that’s kind of how people grow up to be. I know that’s how my brother and I grew up to be.
What is just as much in need of praise as the lead performances is the very very aware editing by Sandra Adair, in its sense of pacing and thankful consideration of information for the audience – whether for setting, scenario or character. Boyhood is 166 minutes, it is a minute longer than Transformers: Age of Extinction (a movie people recently gave more notoriety for being a “three-hour Michael Bay movie, in spite of the fact that 166 goes into 180 pretty much zero times). Unlike Transformers, it feels a little more like 2 hours than 2 years. Each moment is just about cut enough to let us feel what the character is going through and then it just straight moves on. Save for the first husband, it doesn’t need to linger any damn longer than it needs to.
In fact, there is something that occurs with the second husband that makes me think of what Richard Linklater said about one of the movies that influenced him most – Martin Scorsese’s Raging Bull. In the book in question – The Film That Changed My Life, a book of interviews by Robert K. Elder, Linklater notes, Jake La Motta’s first wife in the film never is seen leaving La Motta, we just assume she did when he marries Cathy Moriarty’s character and prior to that we see several fights between La Motta and his wife.
That principle seems very well applied here. We don’t need to see Patricia Arquette marrying these husbands, we don’t even need to see them date – but between the gap where we see less than 10 seconds of them flirting and the characters living with these men, we already know what happened. We see Mason Jr. sitting with his girlfriend and then deliberately sitting away and we have enough information to figure out what happened. Which is just as well, you don’t want to drag the movie down too long. Honestly, around the end, it begins to linger beyond points that would ideally be a great place in Mason Jr.’s life to end the film – but to me, the moment it chose to end, its utter banality and emptiness and just laxness of itself, spiced in dialogue of nonsense as Mason Jr. takes his first steps to life on his own, it just adds to the charm of the film, the fact that it’s just life… nothing special.
Arquette and Hawke’s particular background arcs are the most brilliantly paced – helped by the two actors, watching their lifestyles and careers take the shape they eventually do become – even if they go where the character expected or if they take a complete 180 from what we saw before of them – is the true treat of the narrative beyond anything that happens to Mason Jr. and we just watch it through his eyes.
This is all subjective, however. In the end, the only thing to claim objectively on the movie is what it is… It is a form of life for once captured in all its genuinity. It is a mix between feature narrative and cinema verite. It is a force of cinema that has never been done before and probably can never again be redone – much like how The Act of Killing and Escape from Tomorrow (as shitty as it is) were. Its concept is too massive and too weighty to be done again anyway, without being attached in the public mindset with this movie.
Overall, I loved it despite its faults. I’ve never experienced anything like it and I think the world should see this movie.