Boyhood (United States, 2014)

August 09, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Boyhood Poster

One thing becomes clear upon watching Boyhood: director Richard Linklater is fascinated by the concept of following a fictional character through real time. Most filmmakers lack the patience to attempt something like this. In spirit, if not in the particulars, Boyhood recalls Linklater's Before trilogy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight. Those movies follow two lovers over an 18-year span, catching up with them at nine year intervals across three films. Real time passage equals screen time passage. Boyhood does something comparable, tracking characters across a dozen years, visiting them once a year, but putting everything together into a single film rather than spreading the moments across multiple installments. Still, the basic concept is similar: allowing the aging of the actors to inform and enhance their portrayals of the characters.

If that was all Boyhood had to offer, it could be seen as a gimmick. Fortunately, this is also an exceptionally well-crafted coming-of-age story. The experience of watching an actor grow up on screen is so fundamentally different from what we're used to that it shifts how we watch the movie. To be sure, we're used to films in which characters age but this is typically accomplished by using computer imagery or employing the services of different performers. The way in which Linklater has accomplished this is radical enough to be noticed. (It's also not a trend likely to be widely adopted; it took 12 years to make Boyhood. In an era of immediate gratification, few studios are going to be willing to wait that long.)

There's a documentary aspect to the production. Not only do we watch lead actor Ellar Coltrane mature from age six until young adulthood but we're accorded the same privilege with Linklater's daughter, Lorelei. (According to the director, Lorelei demanded the part, lost interest after a few years, then became bullish again.) We're accorded the opportunity to see familiar faces Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke change over an equal period, although the effect isn't as dramatic because both actors remained in the public spotlight throughout the period when they were making Boyhood.

Coltrane plays Mason and Lorelei Linklater is his older sister, Samantha. When we first encounter them, they're living with their single mother (Arquette), who is struggling to make ends meet on a menial salary. Their father (Hawke) isn't in the picture, having gone to Alaska in search of work. Over the course of the next dozen years, Mom marries and divorces for a second time, Dad spends time with his kids every other weekend and during summers, Mason and Samantha go through puberty, discover the opposite sex, drink, and smoke pot. Mason experiences the heartache of a break-up and the bittersweet freedom of moving out on his own.

Watching Boyhood is like peering through a portal into the intimate details of the lives of others. Sometimes the simplest stories can be the most moving because they're so easy to relate to. The characters in Boyhood could be your neighbors, your friends, or you. There's no melodrama; it's not needed. Without flourishes or seeming to be intrusive, Linklater's camera captures the minutia of everyday living. Nothing is overblown. The "biggest" incident is when Mom's second husband, under the growing influence of alcohol, loses his temper at the dinner table and smashes a few things. Soon after, Mason and Samantha are rushed out of the house; we never see the alcoholic or his children again. As in life, the stories of others are often incomplete.

We see how fleeting and fragile life is. The year-to-year transitions are seamless and because there are no changes in actors, everything blends realistically. During the course of its nearly three-hour running length, Boyhood takes us on a journey. This is a chronological road trip rather than a geographical one. When it's over, the sense is one of deep satisfaction - of having gotten to know a family in a way few motion pictures allow. Because of the dedication and effort involved in making something like Boyhood, we probably won't see its like again in the near future, but I'm glad for this opportunity to view the results of Linklater's bold and rewarding experiment.

Boyhood (United States, 2014)

Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Elijah Smith, Lorelei Linklater
Screenplay: Richard Linklater
Cinematography: Lee Daniel, Shane F. Kelly
U.S. Distributor: IFC Films
Ranked #4 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2014
Run Time: 2:45
U.S. Release Date: 2014-07-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content, Drugs)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1