It’s tough to put into words how incredible Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is.
Typically, how a movie was made is far less important in a critical analysis than the final movie itself, but occasionally there are movies like Boyhood that are so obviously unique that the process of making the film simply cannot be ignored. Filmed every year for the past 12 years (for 39 days total over the 12 years), this is a movie that shows its characters grow up on screen. This has been done before, but never in this way. Seeing its stars grow up was one of the most special elements of Harry Potter, the film series, but this is an idea that has even more impact in one single movie. This idea was also used in Michael Apted Up documentary series which has followed its participants for decades, but the effect is certainly different in a documentary than it is in a narrative film like this.
Boyhood tells the story of how Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up, but it does it in a very smart way by not focusing on life’s obvious moments and instead featuring many of the moments that make life, well, life. Writer/director Richard Linklater often focused on the broad moments of life that are filled with experiences easily shared by the audience. These moments are the film’s strongest.
By filming every year for 12 years, Linklater was able to achieve an usual feat when it comes to tone. Usually movies released in one year that have narrative taking place from a decade earlier are filled with nostalgia for that time, but Boyhood doesn’t fall under these trappings. It’s obvious as to why this is; we know now looking back what was big a decade ago. Linklater didn’t know what would be important a decade ago, and his film has a very interesting time capsule quality. There are several distinct moments that Linklater couldn’t have predicted how we’d look at them now, and the film is better for it. It’s filled with culturally resonant textures, and by literally showing a boy growing up through the last decade, it’s uniquely definitive of our (read: the general age of writers and readers of this site) generation.
Boyhood starts out good and gets better as it goes along, and this is an obvious parallel to Linklater’s career. Before this film, Linklater had made great some fantastic films including Slacker, Dazed And Confused, and Before Sunrise, and between filmingBoyhood‘s beginning and conclusion he made some of the other great films of his career, including School of Rock, Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, and the under-appreciatedBernie. Throughout his career Linklater has become an older, wiser filmmaker, andBoyhood gets older and wiser with him.
Linklater develops some interesting and resonant themes throughout the film. One of the main themes is the effect of divorce, as Mason and his sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) deal with the effect of their parents Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) splitting up before the beginning of the movie. Another is the also interesting transformation of Mason from a shy boy to a man with opinions of his own. The former theme is an interesting one that has been looked at before, but the latter is made much more resonant in the Boyhood‘s epic structure. By seeing Mason’s transition from childhood to manhood take place in one sitting, this coming of age tale is more resonant than the genre typically allows for.
Boyhood would not have worked even half as well if it had been filmed all at once with Mason being played by different actors at different ages. A lot of this is due to simply seeing the one person grow up, but it also has to do with just how good Ellar Coltrane is in the role. Linklater’s casting search can be deemed nothing more than an absolute success when casting Coltrane as Mason. Coltrane started off a good child actor who blossomed into an interesting adult actor. He was consistently impressive, and the movie could have derailed if at any time if he didn’t grow talentwise.
Coltrane’s great performance was nearly equaled by his three co-stars. Linklater’s daughter Lorelei was really good in an unusual way as Mason sister. Her performance doesn’t feel like she’s acting; she just feels like she really is Mason’s sister. Frequent Linklater contributor Ethan Hawke is great as usual as Mason Sr., and it was nice to see him play a character so fundamentally different than his Before trilogy character. Patricia Arquette’s Olivia is the least developed of the four, that is until the end of the film rolls around where her character is given a much more interesting turn.
Up to this point, I’ve restrained the language I’ve used as to not come off hyperbolic. ButBoyhood is a film that deserves those hyperbolic thoughts to be written because I believe that they are true. Not only do I think that Boyhood is the best movie of the year, I think it’s the best movie in years. I would not be wary of calling this one of the top 5 movies to be released in the past decade. It’s an absolute masterpiece, a once in a lifetime kind of film. In part, I think it’s so good because it’s wondrous, it’s inspiring, it’s the kind of film you never want to end. The late Roger Ebert once famously said, “No good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough,” and that couldn’t be more true here. Boyhoodhas a runtime of over two and a half hours, but I could have easily sat there for another six.
Boyhood is a powerfully resonant movie because it works so much on shared experience, and it’s a movie that I think will greatly connect with many people. Boyhood gets my complete recommendation, and everyone should see it. It’s an essential landmark in cinematic history.