“INSTANT CLASSIC”. “INDISPUTABLE TRIUMPH”. “A MASTERPIECE”.
These are the kind of things a vast majority of critics have been saying about Boyhood. So maybe you can’t blame me for walking out of Richard Linklater newest film, an understated epic about growing up, wondering if I was missing something. Why wasn’t I moved to tears? Why didn’t I immediately feel the desire to see the movie again? Why didn’t it immediately become my favorite movie?
After all, this movie has two things that, in theory, appeal to me directly. The first is the director, Richard Linklater, who I have considered my favorite working director for quite a while now, having made some true classics such as Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and School of Rock. Second, it is very obviously a coming-of-age movie, which I consistently find myself gravitating towards. But as I drove home from the theater, feeling very little, I worried that maybe it had finally happened — a movie was ruined for me by the sheer ferocity of the hype surrounding it.
But then I found myself thinking about the movie shortly afterwards. And then the next day. And the next. As it turns out, Boyhood isn’t the kind of movie that elicits an immediate reaction. It’s the type of movie that seeps into your bones and returns to the forefront of your mind seemingly at random. As such, it accomplishes something that seldom few films do — it holds the potential to impact the way you perceive life, almost on a subliminal level, instead of quickly fading out of memory. Like, say, pretty much every other movie you can see this summer.
What’s that? You just want to know what this movie is and what I think about it? Okay:
Boyhood was filmed every summer for twelve years, as the actor Ellar Coltrane grew from six to eighteen years old. Richard Linklater incorporated certain aspects of Ellar’s real life into the fictional life of his character Mason, in order to make it feel more authentic. Which it does. And while a lot of focus has been put on the boy himself, we also see his parents (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) and his sister (played by the director’s daughter Lorelei) age by twelve years as well.
So yeah, it was a pretty crazy project, requiring over a decade of commitment and most likely an ungodly number of obstacles to overcome. Linklater couldn’t have known what kind of person Ellar would become, nor could he have assumed the kid would grow to be a good actor. The cast and crew ‘took a chance‘, as it were, and it could easily have turned out to be a disaster. There have been plenty of crazy-ambitious film experiments over the years that have turned out poorly, and I’m sure many more that haven’t even made it to the screen.
Richard Linklater, however, is exactly the kind of talented, hardworking, compassionate genius who could make something like this work. His secret weapon was that he clearly treated the project itself with the same wide-eyed optimism, the feeling that absolutely anything can happen, that Mason must feel in the movie’s opening moments, as he looks up at a clear blue sky of endless possibilities. Of course Linklater couldn’t know how it would all pan out twelve years down the line, but his determination and excitement over the years both shine through every scene of the movie and are ultimately the reason why the final product has been so exulted.
But I should be clear: 80% of the movie’s success comes simply from what it is. You see a kid grow up in the span of two hours and forty-five minutes, in a way that feels completely seamless. Text doesn’t pop up telling you what year it is or how old Mason is now, which could have made the age jumps feel jarring. Instead, like in real life, you find yourself marveling at how much his appearance and personality has changed over time. The process never feels disjointed, but a condensed version of the true-to-life experience of growing up, or seeing someone else grow up.
It’s this phenomenon, which is both completely unique to film (you couldn’t get nearly the same effect in a book) and has never been attempted before in such a way, that really creeps its way into some deep, primal part of the mind. You watch the film, expecting to see how each moment will relate to another and effect Mason going forward as you would expect from any other film. But the moment the film ends, the reality hits that you weren’t watching any other film after all. You really, truly did just watch a kid grow up, there’s no denying it. No special effects, no magic. Just the passage of time.
As I said, 80% of the film’s triumph comes from what it is, but the other 20% comes from what it says. This isn’t a documentary, meaning Linklater could manipulate and control the actual details of the story as he wishes. He chooses to include certain big, potentially traumatic moments in Mason’s life, but he also includes small, seemingly insignificant moments that may or may not be payed off later. We never see certain traditional coming-of-age tropes such as a first kiss, prom, or graduation, but I never noticed their omission.
Maybe because that’s how life is; our actions and personalities can sometimes be the result of a bunch of tiny moments we may or may not acknowledge or even remember. And that’s what sets Boyhood apart. As much as it is a coming-of-age movie, it’s also a ‘being-an-age’ movie. It’s just as interested, if not moreso, in showing the characters simply living in each moment as it is showing how each moment impacts the next.
Linklater persuades audiences to give just as much attention to the little details in our lives than the big moments of pain or joy. Because while some of the little moments won’t amount to anything, there are still tiny, untraceable remnants of every single moment of our past within our present. Our lives are shaped not just by the highs and lows, but everything in the middle as well. Most movies only present the highs and lows, because that’s usually what it takes for a movie to be exciting or interesting. But this movie has been custom-made to defy those norms.
I wrote a paper in an American Independent Cinema class about Linklater’s emphasis on collaboration in his movies. As such, I can’t credit Linklater alone with his most recent success. After all, Ellar Coltrane is the one who ended up becoming the talented, good-looking actor. For the first several years it’s enough for him to be a cute, curious kid. But when he grows up and begins truly thinking, speaking and acting for himself, he’s a magnetic, believable, and almost intangibly likable lead. Partly because you’ve known him since he was six, sure, but you can only get so far without acting skills. Coltrane has them.
I was a little disappointed by how little Mason expresses himself during the early years, which is very much unlike Linklater’s usual talkative protagonists. But later on, he takes that classic, earnest Linklater dialogue and makes it his own. Despite the movie’s title, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette are given almost as much of a focus (especially while Mason is young), and almost steal the show in the process. Whereas the kids are simplistic for the first half of the film, the adults need to be complex, emotionally-charged characters from the very beginning and continue to grow and change over the next twelve years.
Hawke’s well-intentioned but sometimes-selfish father is a highlight of the entire movie, and I’d argue an Oscar-worthy performance (if only by default). Patricia Arquette’s character makes some pretty bad decisions over the course of the movie, yet somehow she always keeps you firmly rooting for her to find happiness in life. I’ve heard complaints from many people that Lorelei Linklater is the weak link of the movie, her performance becoming especially stilted in her early teens. Among those critics is Lorelei herself — but I didn’t mind at all. Her performance is quite obvious and awkward in her teenage years, yes, but those are the years when most teens are awkward and over-exaggerate themselves.
Linklater not only chose his cast wisely, but he chose to put the spotlight on cultural moments that he rightly guessed would be touchestones for kids living in this time. Ellar is only a few years younger than I am, so for people around this age, I can only assume the film will have an even greater nostalgic impact. From Britney Spears to Harry Potter, to the pitch-perfect soundtrack choices — the film grounds itself fully in this specific place and time.
Even if you don’t have a personal connection to everything (for example, I never watched Dragonball Z like Ellar and so many other kids), there are still bound to be certain things in the film that remind you of your own childhood. And while adults may not be familiar with the pop culture moments, there are universal situations that will be recognizable and relatable to anyone who has ever grown up.
The only element that didn’t feel true to life for me, as someone who grew up around this same time, is the relative sidelining of social media. There are a few brief mentions of it and one scene where Mason explains that he doesn’t like Facebook…probably because it keeps people from focusing on those little moments that Linklater loves to emphasize so much. But the introduction of social media sites were such a game-changer to the growing-up process that their absence does feel a bit glaring. Though I suppose it does help keep the film feeling too specific to this specific generation.
I’ve given this movie quite a lot of praise. It’s a hard movie not to praise. But still, Boyhood is neither my favorite coming-of-age movie nor my favorite Richard Linklater movie. I still think that Linklater’s Before Sunrise and Waking Life are two masterpieces that are just as satisfying and life-affirming in their own ways, but tighter and more finely-crafted.
But Boyhood is still the definitive Richard Linklater movie, the culmination of all of his best works. It has the the same interest in the every day as Slacker and Dazed and Confused. It has the same melancholic atmosphere and naturally-flowing dialogue of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight. It has the same formal daring and eventually takes on the same intellectual musings as Waking Life. It even has moments that recall the light, goofy humor of School of Rock and Bernie.
Blending all of these elements together sometimes makes for an uncomfortable fit, sure, and any arguments that the movie is too long may have some validity. But Boyhood is the very rare movie that all negative criticism seems to bounce right off of once you’ve experienced it in full. It’s not just cool to watch Mason grow up, it feels important. It almost feels necessary. You may just not notice it at first.
Score: 4.5 out of 5