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Movie review: 'Boyhood' is a watershed coming-of-age film with immense scope

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Boyhood

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"BOYHOOD"-- 5 STARS

Call me a cynic to the media-obsessed generation of today, but if you were to poll moviegoers their preference between watching something realistic or watching something fantastical, I think you would find a lopsided vote tipping in favor of the make-believe. Movies were born as an art form to bring fantasy to life. Fiction of all kinds can come alive thanks to the magic of movies and the big screen puts it on a scale that inspires future fantasy. Face it, "Star Wars" is going to sell more tickets than "Casablanca" if they played at the same theater.

That said, there will always be a place in cinema for the smaller half of that vote. After all, "Annie Hall" still beat "Star Wars" at the Oscars. Chalk it up to the "human condition." Because we are people with real lives and infinite similarities as a people, an audience, or a country for that matter, movies of realistic fiction settings, spanning from comedy to drama and romance, constantly earn their rightful piece of the artistic and inspirational spotlight. Because they are personally engaging, these films move us. We will always need "To Kill a Mockingbird" to teach us as readily as something like "Avatar" to wow us.

Putting the obviousness of reality TV aside and focusing on film, as an audience, we constantly compare our own lives to what we are watching. Since growing up and life are both hard no matter the setting, we often take stock in watching a film that either reminds us how good we had it or, by contrast, offers relief that others had it just as hard, or worse, than we did. Even a film I loathe like Terrance Malick's "The Tree of Life" has value in that department. This comparison is almost an automatic response for us as an audience and we are drawn to that feeling.

"Boyhood," the new storytelling opus from writer-director Richard Linklaker, is a special kind of realistic fiction unlike most anything previously seen or attempted by a filmmaker. As many of you may have read already going into this, Linklater began making this film in 2002, enlisting a core of actors with the intent to follow a broken family over time. Patricia Arquette and Linklater veteran Ethan Hawke signed on to play a pair of divorced parents, named Olivia and Mason, that share two children. Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, plays Samantha, the big sister, and then-newcomer Ellar Coltrane is the little brother, Mason Jr., and the centerpiece of this story. Employing no aging makeup, replacement actors, or flashbacks, the goal was to capture the parent-child relationship from 1st grade to high school graduation.

For a few summer weeks each year between 2002 and 2013, the principal four actors would assemble to shoot footage on an annual $200,000 budget (which adds to under $3 million total) of a family drama that would evolve as the actors and world around them changed. All four performers of the family were part of the writing process with Linklater with little to no big studio interference. As Lorelai and Ellar, in particular, grew up and changed, so did the story to fit them.

The ambitious result of "Boyhood" is nothing short of a watershed film for coming-of-age realism and unmatched storytelling scope. I think we all recognized Linklater's skill to tell a long, continuous story, as evidenced by his phenomenal Ethan Hawke/Julie Delpy trilogy of "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset," and "Before Midnight" from 1995 to 2013, but "Boyhood is on a whole different level of storytelling dedication and involvement. And, in true Linklater fashion, this film continues his deep connection to his home state of Texas. Looking at the big picture, the 100% "Top Critics" and 99% regular Rotten Tomatoes scores and 99 out of 100 Metacritic rating are all true and warranted. "Boyhood" is the best film of the year so far and is an incredible filmmaking achievement towards portraying the preciousness of the human condition that we all share.

Forgoing any voiceovers of cliched internal or flashback monologue and moving without the cinematic mile markers of title cards showing dates, "Boyhood" flows for a hefty two hours and 45 minutes through young Mason's point-of-view from age 6 to 18. Songs and surrounding events are your only clues between long takes to "when" you are, but the film is always moving forward and the pace sinks in where you start to catch the shifts. The film begins with a little boy looking up at the clouds without a care in the world before the week he, his sister, and his mother have to turn their back on the home they were born and grew up in. That opening transition starts the journey where the theme is to never look back and how the cares of the world are always out of reach.

The kids are in the residential custody of Olivia while Mason Sr. gets two weekends a month and summer time. Where Olivia has to be the full-time parent, Mason is relegated to the fun-facilitating part-time dad that starts out selfishly clinging to his starving artist man-child desires, complete with a retro muscle car and a songwriting guitar close by. We don't know their history, but Olivia and Mason rarely acknowledge or interact. They grow to become amicable, but the sting of divorce will always separate them with the kids in the middle as their sole connection. Both are intent on moving on and do so.

The first move comes from Olivia struggling to make ends meet to provide for her children without an education to get a good job. She starts college and soon marries one of her professors (veteran Texas actor Marco Perella), who is also a package deal with two kids about the same age as Sam and Mason. It won't be their last move or first step-father relationship as "Boyhood" moves towards our present day. Through each change and year, Mason Sr. is always there to still offer the necessary influence as a true father.

What makes "Boyhood" this extraordinary experience and achievement is the opposite of that adjective: the ordinary. Linklater and company sought to deliver a genuine interpretation of a life experience without flashy movie bells and whistles. There is a subdued beauty behind the technical expertise. They know real life events don't play out or turn out like they do in the movies. They aren't announced with inane plot-descriptive dialogue by supporting characters and sidekicks. Real lives move in moments and operate in nuances. Our lives aren't backed by an orchestrational score and neither is "Boyhood." By operating in that style, the uniqueness of this divorce, divided family, and period of long change becomes approachable and even ordinary compared to other over-the-top family dramas that require multiple grains of salt to accept so many contrivances.

To explain in further detail, the landmarks and milestones we witness of young Mason and his family come and go as they would in any of our own lives, in all their unplanned abruptness and lasting resonance. The overall events are condensed to become a movie, yes, but they don't feel episodic or disconnected. "Boyhood" is not subtitled "How to Make a Millennial Youth." The story developments are not trumped-up intentional set pieces of Hollywood screenwriting cliches. They are a collection of miniature shared life experiences that all connect to mold the boy we see growing into a young man ready to go out on his own. We watch the moments that stick with Mason and they, in turn, just might stick with you as well.

What I'm saying is there's a purpose to the poetry. It's a point and purpose that 2011's "The Tree of Life," a film "Boyhood" is being frequently compared to, utterly lacked. I'll touch on some of those points of purpose in the lessons, but the momentum to get through a long movie like "Boyhood" stems from wanting to see how this young man turns out. Even richer is that we get to watch the evolution of his parents and sister, as they too are given worthwhile influence to connect to our central Mason. Arquette and Hawke get multiple signature moments to exude their character's ever-present desire to raise their kids as rightly, strongly, and as independently as they can, no matter their own flaws as adults.

"Boyhood" builds on its own resonance with us over the course of Mason's growing age. Ellar Coltrane's performance is nothing short of remarkable. The only way this film works is with a convincing lead you can care about. Hawke and Arquette are professional actors, but Mason couldn't be a true professional. He had to be a real kid to some degree. Thanks to the movie's massive scope, this might arguably be the best child acting performance you will ever see. The film has more to say and share about life as Mason grows to expound and share more himself. When he's young, we learn through his observations and his parents do the talking. By the time he's in high school, his actions and his words are fully developed to tell his own life story. When that happens, the rightful character and actor cements this film as their own.

"Boyhood" doesn't have to hit hard. It doesn't have to shock us with secrets and twists like a Lifetime TV movie. It doesn't have to overcompensate the ordinary with eccentricity. It just has to be itself, just like the main character. By doing that, the movie hits home and time melts away.

LESSON #1: CHILDREN THAT ARE PRODUCTS OF DIVORCE-- In "Boyhood," we witness the long-term roller coaster that comes from the aftershocks of divorce. We see the awkward visitations, the constant moving, the trust issues, the favoritism swaying between parents, and the differing influences on the children between mother figures and father figures. We see mom and dad moving on and trying new paths to their lives while still including their shared children. For the children shared by these parents, the wound of divorce can heal, but a scar and a lack of completeness remains. Divorce and how the kids deal with it will shape how they turn out as adults.

LESSON #2: HOW LEARNING EVOLVES THROUGH CHILDHOOD-- On this singular scale with Mason, "Boyhood" shows a microcosm of how learning evolves and grows. Like many kids, Mason makes mistakes that he learns from over time. Inspirations and interests come and go. Grades and school assignments build and change. We see a "Harry Potter"-loving kid and distracted video game player age to become a world-aware teen that eschews social media and finds an art medium that fulfills him. Video games didn't fry this kid's brain and the elements of fictional fantasy only added to his lifelong learning.

LESSON #3: HOW A CHILD'S RELATIONSHIP WITH THEIR PARENTS CHANGES OVER TIME-- This film spans from bedtime stories to empty nest packing for college. The parent-child relationship changes and matures with life and aging. Independence is gained and protection is lessened. Those interests of the child from Lesson #2 get fed and enabled by the parents. Encouragement replaces instruction. In the end, the parents goal of raising strong and creative kids never changes, even with the divorce setting of "Boyhood" and the influences of step-fathers crowding the scene. The two kids have a complicated relationship with their parents, to say the least, and we are privy to seeing that develop and change in this film.

LESSON #4: THE CLASSIC "COMING OF AGE" TALE-- The first three lessons and all of the things we witness occurring through these momentary episodes of Mason's life fit into the quintessential "coming of age" template. Literature and film have tread frequently through tales of boys becoming men. Real life echoes that and every single man walking this planet has their story of maturation. Compared to other films, "Boyhood" has unique wrinkles all its own, led by its sheer length of storytelling alone.

LESSON #5: WHAT YOUNG EYES AND EARS CAN OBSERVE-- Throughout all of the lessons, it comes down to witnessing an arc of one's life. We are watching one family's domestic life over time unfold through the eyes and ears of a boy growing into a man. This is Mason's view of the world. We are seeing the good, the bad, and the ugly and how it changes in impression and impact with a child's maturity and understanding. This is beyond the Vince Vaughn "earmuffs" trick from "Old School." Kids pick up on more things than we tend to realize. At a young age, they can see stress, anguish, and irregularity. They know when something is wrong. They can see through a lie or a sugarcoated response over time. Their gap is being able to fully interpret the "why" behind the "what" of their observations.

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