Boyhood (2014) / Drama
MPAA Rated: R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Running Time: 165 min.
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella, Libby Villari, Zoe Graham, Brad Hawkins, Jenni Tooley, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villareal, Richard Andrew Jones, Jessi Mechler
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Review published July 27, 2014
Boyhood will likely be more remembered for how it was made than for the heartfelt story underneath, but that shouldn't diminish its subtly emotional power as a family drama. Written and directed by Richard Linklater (Before Midnight, A Scanner Darkly) in a meager 39 days over the massive span of twelve years using the same basic core of actors, it's a gutsy undertaking, as one never knows at the beginning of the journey whether all of the pieces will still be there along the way. Will the filmmaker lose interest? Will a cast member drop out? Will the tone of the work jar from unforeseen narrative and character changes over time? Luckily for Linklater, and for us as viewers, it all has come together to form a satisfying and thought-provoking whole.
We follow the childhood of a Texas boy named Mason (Coltrane, Fast Food Nation) from his early days in elementary school in 2002 all the way to his first days of college in 2013. Mason is the brother to the slightly older Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), both raised by their divorced mother Olivia (Arquette, Holes) and is occasionally visited by his mostly absent father, Mason Sr. (Hawke, Getaway). Olivia does what she can to make ends meet, but with two growing children, she knows she's going to have to do more to bring more money into the household, so she moves back in with her mother in order to go to college and earn a degree. Meanwhile, Olivia's attempts to find an adequate husband and father to the children results in lifestyle changes that are in some ways better, and in some ways worse, thanks in no small part to problems with alcoholism. With a mother who is trying to support the family, an unsupportive sister, and with a lack of quality father figures in Mason's life, he has to learn valuable life lessons -- especially the one that suggests that growing up is a hard thing to do for most kids.
The natural aging process means that we're not going to be subject to the artifice of make-up effects, swapping out of actors, and false or anachronistic period depictions that take us out of the moment, as is the case with so many other dramas that cover the same characters over a similar time span. By allowing us brief glimpses into the lives of these characters, we're given poignancy that wouldn't have resulted if we were witnessing what we knew to be false, and some of the film's most touching of moments comes from that feeling of a great sense of time passing for these characters, and how they react and resolve long-standing issues with each other.
In some ways, Boyhood is a one-movie example of what Linklater's doing with the Before series of films, which also gives us snapshots in the lives of a romantic couple as they progress from flirtation to actually trying to make a relationship work over the span of many years. The difference is that the span is told within the course of the same movie, as if Truffaut's first two or three movies in the Antoine Doinel series were condensed into just one film. Without title cards or any text to tell us when time is passing, we are instantly clued in by not only the cultural touchstones that the kids indulge in (music, video games, news stories, political campaigns, and movies of the era), but also that Mason just looks more grown up whenever time passes. His hair style changes, his voice gets deeper, his observations more articulate. The adults change too, but more subtly, as Olivia gets more educated and assured in her connection with others, while Mason Sr. eventually matures to husband and father in his second marriage in a way he never did for his first.
By the way, Hawke is fantastic in this film, completely in his zone in a way that only his collaboration with Linklater seems to fully bring out. His supporting turn as Mason Sr. is as well-rounded as what we see from the three starring turns as Jesse in the Before trilogy. His chemistry with Coltrane is very evident, as the younger actor seems to act far more naturally when Hawke is interacting with him than at any other time in the movie. The same could also be said of Hawke's connection with Lorelei Linklater, the director's real-life daughter, who reportedly, after a few years in, was so against continuing to be in the film that she begged her father to kill off her character. I'm sure she will be glad he didn't one day, as she's one of the most appealing things about the film.
However, some of the non-Hawke scenes are a mixed bag in terms of the quality of the performances, especially when it is just kids on the screen. It is then that the improvisational element that feels so natural is held up more by scripted dialogue that, while good, shows that this cast of young and inexperienced child actors are just that. Even Arquette, who is an experienced actress, doesn't completely jibe with Linklater's style in a way that fully escapes the artifice of the dialogue, though she definitely connects with some very strong moments. Despite the herky-jerky nature of the acting from scene to scene, and from year to year, the momentum may slow at times, but it never stops, even though the film's length is a sprawling 2 hours and 45 minutes.
Our minds are searching for clues, putting together what must have transpired in the time that has passed since we saw these characters last, and we're either gratified or worried about each new set of situations, hoping for the best for everyone, yet knowing that life is messy and full of unpredictable outcomes. Most movies tend to have everything up tied up into one tidy bow at the end, but we suspect early on that Boyhood isn't going to be a typical film; we know that all of what we do see leads up to the point where the boy will set out on his own course in life, but as to where he goes and what he does from there we can only speculate.
The usual things boys struggle with growing up are dealt with: girls, drinking, peer pressure, bullies, lectures from teachers, lectures from employers, lectures from parents, and trying to assert one's independence amid also having to rely on others for basic necessities. We're interested in the plights of the characters, not just because we're invested in the story that we see on the screen, but because we're invested in identifying with the themes of growing up that are the foundation underneath all that we are seeing. We're hooked in by the universal truths about the awkwardness and confusion we all felt by things we're too young and inexperienced to fully grasp about the world and how it all works, and we see it all again through the eyes of someone going through what we went through ourselves.
Though Boyhood may have initially started as an experiment, it holds up very well at the end of it just taking it purely as a straightforward drama. It's a film about maturation -- about how what happens in one year carries over into the next. It's about a boy who grows to be a man, girl who grows into a woman, and a woman and man who grow to be a better woman and man. And, in its understated way, it's also about a director who has grown from a young filmmaker of note to a true auteur of the cinema whose body of work will be studied by future generations. Boyhood may go down as his crowning achievement. Perhaps Linklater will turn this into a Before or Antoine Doinel series by checking in from time to time. Even if he doesn't, it won't be any loss; we will always have one really wonderful movie to cherish the rest of our lives.
©2014 Vince Leo