I’m a statistical kind of a guy. I love my numbers (and though I’ll leave the calculations to far better men, I’ll have no problem citing them). Boyhood currently rocks an unprecedented 99% on Rotten Tomatoes and an earth-shattering 100% User Score on Metacritic. That’s ubiquitous approval, people.
I have wanted to see this film since I first heard pre-release press from last year’s Sundance. Even before that, there had been rumors abound concerning Richard Linklater’s unprecedented endeavor. The 55-year old director, loved by his fans for 1993’s Dazed and Confused and 1995’s Before Sunrise and worshipped by mumble-core aficionados and indie-savants for Slacker (1991), had pulled it off. Back in 2002, Linklater cast an eight-year old Ellar Coltrane to play his millennial vessel. For the next twelve years, Linklater would carve out about one week annually with Coltrane and co-stars Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, Training Day), Patricia Arquette (Lost Highway, Boardwalk Empire), and Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter). They would shoot a few scenes, part ways for twelve months, and rinse and repeat. And it was in this way that filmmaking history was made. Several attempts at similarly exaggerated shooting periods have proven successful in the past (Michael Apted’s “Up” Documentary Series), and many have fallen flat (Stanley Kubrick’s abandoned Napoleon, planned to shoot over ten years so that Al Pacino might age realistically as the titular conqueror). But Boyhood is without a doubt the first of its kind: fully scripted, lovingly crafted, and boasting a stellar cast of tremendously dedicated actors and crew. As every poster around your local indie-theater will boast, “It’s a masterpiece 12 years in the making.”
I have to admit, it’s rather difficult to separate the execution of Boyhood from the concept, especially because the novelty generates the most hype. Make no mistake; Linklater doesn’t strut into this without the cinematography, editing, casting, and story to back up his vision. Boyhood never purports Hollywood ambitions. Expect no melodramatic arcs, major reversals, recognitions, or any of those other screenwriting tropes designed to tug on your heartstrings. Instead, Boyhood knows the value of naked truth. This movie is built from the ground up to ruin your expectations of escapist filmmaking.
Young Mason Jr. (Coltrane), his divorced parents (Hawke and Arquette), and his older sister (Linklater) all sputter about their wonderfully banal lives with resigned dispassion. You’re never left with feeling voyeuristic, however, as the framing remains intimate and involved throughout, spattered with organic movement but grounded by a steady ‘shot-reverse-shot’ pattern. Linklater’s camera trucks through the room in earlier sequences, but as the years go by and camera-tech improves, the director embraces that tight-framing trend, giving you inside access to an older Mason’s emotions during his inspired soliloquies. Overall, don’t expect that airy music-video ‘tumblr’ vibe you get from most indie films nowadays: Linklater plays fast and tight, giving you that Hollywood sensibility layered over indie flair, both stylistic and observant. It’s a beautiful approach to cinematography, and it keeps the 165-minute runtime from growing stale.
Although there are some weak performances by the younger crowd (particularly one cringe-worthy scene involving Mason’s middle-school friends), there is something charming about these flawed moments. If Boyhood is truly just an exploration of formative years, shouldn’t it come complete with all the errors and slip-ups? Nonetheless, Hawke and Arquette throw the heavyweight punches. Mason Sr. (Hawke) provides his son with subtly profound advice at every juncture, often falling back on his passion for simple country music to support his life lessons. At one point, Hawke cranks the stereo and turns to Mason Jr, reveling in the simple beauty of a Wilco song, praising it for being ‘just good and plain.’ And you can’t help but get the feeling he’s talking about the film itself. And Arquette breaks your heart as Mason’s mother Olivia, baring all at once exhaustion and determination and indispensable love for her two children.
And Coltrane grows into a fine Linklater mouthpiece, possessed of that matter-of-fact tonality and plaintive objectivity gleamed from previous Linklater protagonists (such as Ethan Hawke in Before Sunrise). It helps that the kid is a stone-cold heartthrob – seriously, try not to swoon. He’s hot.
It doesn’t take manufactured drama to break your heart. It’s the simplest moments in life, the beautiful boredom that drives you. And Boyhood basks in that glow. It plays out like a reminder: this is life, this is what it means to grow up and live and love and learn, to strike out on your own, to grow an opinion and a conscience.
I’ll confess I’m biased: Ellar Coltrane and Mason are both exactly my age (18 as of the end of the film in Fall 2014, 19 now). And so I couldn’t help but look in a mirror when I saw that mop of straw hair grow long and trim short with the passing years, and watch those freckles turn to pimples turn to laugh-lines, and those eyes grow jaded and that posture fade to a slouch. But maybe that’s the point: to make you fall in love with Mason and his world as you would your own reflection, growing used to all the imperfections whilst still being proud of all the good-looking parts. It’s an experience not just for the intellectually frustrated millennial, but for anyone and everyone who knows what it means to step up to the precipice of adulthood and dip your toe into the abyss.
But the true weight of this film struck me as I left the theater:
I just watched all the years I’ve ever lived fly by in 3 hours.
I highly recommend going to see Boyhood with friends, as many of mine did not love the film as much as I did, and it’s certainly a controversial experience. At the very least, there will be a guaranteed spirited post-viewing discussion in the parking lot. The film is undoubtedly flawed and an opinion of it might rest on whether or not you can forgive those flaws in the name of human imperfection. Regardless, it’s impossible not to appreciate the scope of such an undertaking, and the beauty with which Linklater realized his vision.
Overall Rating: 10/10 – A Masterpiece
It’s nothing like you’ve ever seen before. But it’s also everything you’ve ever known.
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