Richard Linklater is perhaps best known for his Before trilogy of Sunrise, Sunset, and Midnight, but one other thing he’s often regarded for is that he’s an ambitious experimentalist. However, this is something that, more often than not, unravels his features. Linklater, at least to me, is a classic example of a man with stronger ideas than executions, almost like a question that’s far more interesting than the actual answer.
One year after his fantastic Before Midnight, Linklater’s back with another ambitious directorial effort, Boyhood. A project that was originally conceived in 2002, Linklater would annually reunite with his cast and crew to film snippets of footage for twelve years. It’s a stellar achievement on its own, but one that threatens to be a gimmick. While the idea is highly original, I never could shake my cynicism that critics were showering it with heaps of praise (even declaring it a masterpiece) because of the idea more than the execution. If the actual presentation isn’t good, that originality is for naught.
In the end, though, this was one time where Linklater deserved the benefit of the doubt, for Boyhood is the man’s best and most emotionally engaging film yet.
Starting in 2002, we meet seven year old Mason (Ellar Coltrane), lying on the ground, staring at the clouds in the sky in wonder, absorbing the beauty of the moment. Throughout the years, while living with his single mother (Patricia Arquette) and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater), Mason moves from various neighborhoods, engaging in new life experiences that continually shape him, all the way to his late teens on the cusp of adulthood.
And that’s really it. There are no intensified conflicts, no demonizing or sugar coating, just a young boy continually aging. When you get to its core, the film does appear mundane, as not very many spectacular things occur over the course of the film. But in the end, there doesn’t need to be. This is the very nature of life, and Linklater has managed to capture that essence so well. Life moves quickly, as does the film from one year to the next in a manner that feels Malickian. Life is a collection of constant moments, heartbreaking, angst-ridden, and charming, and even the most mundane and insignificant events - much like Mason staring at the clouds - make an impact on a person, and shape them into the figure that they’re going to become. It’s a fascinating concept that Linklater emphasizes further with Mason’s passion for photography. You really have to give kudos to editor Sandra Adair for piecing it all together so expertly.
Initially, Mason may deceptively appear not to be a very interesting character, or a very unique one, but that is something that ultimately makes the film more fascinating. Mason is admittedly a bit of a blank slate at the start, but at the same time, he will absorb all of the events that are surrounding him. He will learn from mistakes and experience, and seize a moment of opportunity. He may also be apathetic to certain situations, but there’s such an incredible vulnerability and relatability to him in that regard. This is something that lead actor Eller Coltrane especially excels at, becoming one with the character seamlessly.
And that is yet another great element to this film, which is how real and grounded these characters are. In fact, the very nature of the film almost feels documentarian in approach, due in no small part to how well the accompanying actors mature right alongside their paper counterparts. Patricia Arquette is excellent as Mason’s overburdened and nurturing mother with a penchant for failed relationships, and Lorelei Linklater convincingly and consistently comes into her own as Mason’s older sister. Perhaps my favorite performer of the bunch is Ethan Hawke as Mason’s father, which would have been so easy to make such a generic and uninteresting deadbeat dad, but his character is treated with a firm understanding of his own faults, and supplies the film with tremendous warmth and zeal.
There’s only one real knock I have against the film, and I do consider it a nit-pick, but the film is nearly three hours long, and absolutely feels it. The film doesn’t always move with alacrity, especially in Mason’s later stages which feel a bit on the slow side. But perhaps that’s a deliberate move. Though life can often appear to move at the speed of light, it can also grind to sluggish speeds with certain daily instances, so even though I’m full aware of the length, I’m still enraptured enough that I can forgive it.
Do I consider Boyhood a masterpiece? Not necessarily, but it does come close to that level of status, and sits among the very best films of the year. In other hands, this concept could have been seen as a gimmick, possibly an unmitigated disaster, but with Linklater’s steady hand, he has crafted one of the most intimate and genuine portraits of adolescence in cinematic history. Who knows what further enriching details lie in repeat viewings, but for now, if you’re tired of the usual summer blockbuster glut, do yourself a favor and see this movie now.
****1/2 / *****