It’s hard to write a review when all you want to do is scream in the streets, “See this movie, see this movie!!”
If ever a film were mandatory viewing, it would be this one.
With "Boyhood", writer/director Richard Linklater presents both a masterpiece of cinematic undertaking and a tremendously endearing family portrait with a single swath.
Here we meet Mason, a five-year-old with a slightly older sister and divorced parents, through whose eyes we experience the next twelve years. As we meet him, Mom and Dad have settled into essentially amicable terms and are not unduly unpleasant to deal with; sister Samantha, however, is of course insanely annoying, and Mom often seems strangely exasperated by the perfectly justifiable measures he must take against her effronteries (in one hilarious scene I was reminded of an ex of mine, the eldest of five in close cluster whose mother could “drive, put on her makeup, smoke, and brandish a hairbrush at us in the back seat, all at the same time”).
As Mason grows and the years progress, his relationship with his sister evolves, Mom and Dad find and strengthen their co-parenting groove. Other adults come into his world as their partners, adolescent angst and rebellion makes their stand, and first love waxes and wanes, until we finally watch Mason, quite literally, head into the sunset to embrace college and the manhood we know will greet him.
"Boyhood" an authentic, deeply affectionate portrayal of the life of a family, unflinching in both its traumas and disappointments, but also in its love, endurance, and optimism.
Texans will have a particularly enjoyable time of it, as Linklater travels our characters around the Lone Star state with a loving eye. Houstonians (of which Linklater is originally one) will have a particularly splendid time of it, as we visit Miller Outdoor Theater, the Cockrell Butterfly Center, and Minute Maid Park.
It’s not about being Texan, however; that’s just a fun local perk, the way New Englanders enjoy Stephen King. Rather, it’s about the emotional insight with which Linklater infuses his work, whether it be "Dazed and Confused" high schoolers (birthplace of Matthew McConaughey’s familiar “Awright, awright, aw-riiight”), or romantic adventurers Celine and Jesse across the pond in the "Before" trilogy (for which "Boyhood" star Ethan Hawke joined Linklater and co-star July Delpy in Oscar nomination for writing).
With "Boyhood" Linklater brings us a family, just a family making its way through the world, with all its small joys and situational struggles and fearsome challenges and milestones that make us stop and recognize a job well done with a simultaneous, “Whew, we made it!?” Just life, across time.
Which brings us to the cinematic masterpiece that is "Boyhood".
One of the [many] reasons casting is so critical to a film’s success is that it identifies either an actor who can age believably through makeup, or individuals of other generations who can believably echo the actor, usually through the use of complexion, body type, and bone structure. (And speaking of bone structure, I just couldn’t place Dad’s loyal sidekick and looked him up after, to get a huge kick out of seeing Charlie Sexton again, with whom I hadn’t crossed paths since we both dressed like this.)
In this case, however, we actually live not only with the characters, but with the very actors themselves, and given that two were small children when things got underway, the result is astonishing.
As we move from one life phase into the next, our characters change before our very eyes. Unlike using the typical techniques needed to mark the transitions (such as fades in and out, musical bridges, and fashion styling), Linklater simply eases us into the next scene, and as Mason bikes onto the screen, or the family sits down to breakfast, we realize that a year or two has passed not because the characters look different, but because they actually are different.
Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter) have transformed from kiddos into pre-teens; Patricia Arquette carries baby weight gone in the next segment, and for a period she sports her distinctive blunt "Medium" bob; when filming started and the still-estranged parents were finding a way to get along for the sake of the children, both Arquette and Hawke were still recovering from the pain and destabilizing effects of their own divorces.
The sense that we are in this time with these very people is palpable, and draws us into the story in a way that never intrudes, yet creates a sensation unlike any other. It’s not a narrative fiction created by effect; it’s not a documentary that captures what is. It is both. It is unique.
"Boyhood" was a project fraught with risk and challenge. It’s one thing to sink massive effort and millions of dollars into a quantifiable production schedule using a single set of resources. Despite the chaos factor, that’s a proven, predictable condition with a reasonably certain outcome. Here, however, almost anything could happen to derail the end result and render all to waste.
The most obvious would be a material change in cast or crew: what if someone bailed? A foreseeable enough consequence in using small children and expecting them to remain present for the entirety of their lives to date (though arguably Richard had the upper hand here ;) ). Worse, what if, God forbid for their sake, something befell one of the major cast and they were unable to act? For a film, it was a gamble of the first order (remember, it is “only” a movie).
Additionally, artists’ creativity and the tools they use are ever evolving. It’s why we see different periods in a director’s or actor’s body of work; life and maturity can change people and the way their work shows up. Similarly, it's why state-of-the-art effects look dated and stale even a few years later, much less more than a decade.
In order to create "Boyhood"’s consistent tone and feel, every artist had to maintain access to a single creative space personally (reasonably to be expected from the adults as professionals, but we’re talking about growing children here). As they got better at their craft, they had to honor where they were years before. This, and technology had to be employed such that the equipment produced a result consistent with the onset that still felt current upon completion.
This is why the word “masterpiece” is being tossed around with such abandon. The story is resonant and moving and charming and uplifting to be sure; those who know Texas will have terrific fun with the locations; the soundtrack can easily live on one’s phone or in the car for years. But it’s the vision and the courage and the stamina and the creative control of all concerned that makes "Boyhood" a superior achievement. It's not just the doing of a thing, but what it takes in order to do it.
"Boyhood" is the kind of piece that anyone who appreciates mastery should experience, the way that I’m dazzled by the Olympics though I follow no sport (other than film), the way that a musician appreciates a chef.
Unmissable cinema. Unmissable period.
Story: Affectionate, authentic family portrait from the perspective of its son as he grows from age five to eighteen - filmed with the same cast over that period of time.
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella, Steven Chester Prince
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Running time: 166 minutes (but you’ll never feel it)
Houston release date: July 18, 2014 with additional expansion on August 1, 2014
Tickets: Check IMDb.com or your local listings
Screened June 16th 2014 at the Alamo Drafthouse Vintage Park theater in Houston TX