[This is a re-post of my review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Boyhood opens today in limited release.]
Boyhood is a miracle. It is truly unique. It is a masterpiece. It is one of the best coming-of-age movies ever made. These superlatives may seem grandiose or even hyperbolic, but Richard Linklater’s 12-year project is a work of art unlike any other. More importantly, it’s a work that hits a thoughtful and emotional core. It is a movie that not only draws us into the lives of the characters, but also causes us to reexamine our own lives. Boyhood is both intimate and epic, subtle and overwhelming, and an absolute marvel.
The story follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) from 2002 to 2013. Mason begins the story at age six, and we see how drastically his life changes but also the many ways it remains the same. It’s a story with only a couple “big” moments; most of the movie is a collection of snapshots or a few days. It’s Mason talking to a classmate on the way home or going on a camping trip with his dad. Although Mason is the protagonist, we also see how everyone grows, the mistakes they make, and the victories they achieve.
This collection of small moments makes Boyhood a model of restraint that never calls attention to any particular event. Some moments are scary, others are mundane, a few are touching, and plenty of them are funny. I was surprised how much I laughed during the film, and it even reached the point where I started to feel dread because clearly so much joy has to be matched with equal sorrow. It’s the karmic demands of conventional storytelling, and Boyhood is anything but conventional.
And yet the story is incredibly relatable. There’s nothing “spectacular” about Mason’s life except life itself. His life isn’t perfect but it isn’t tragic, and I assume many people who watch this movie will feel the same way. No life is picturesque, but hopefully viewers will recognize the genuine feeling of love and affection between Mason and his family. They’ll also remember the childhood friends they made and lost, the relationships that felt so crucial at the time, the arguments with their families, and more. As I watched Boyhood, I continued to flashback to my own life and where I was in relation to Mason’s age or the year.
Linklater never calls out a specific time. There’s no day and date on Boyhood, and he could have easily restored to flashy, distracting markers. Instead, Linklater makes us do the work of figuring out the year and Mason’s age. Some are easy like when they’re putting up Obama/Biden signs, and others required a bit more digging such as trying to remember the year Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince hit bookshelves (it was in summer 2005). The date is in the video games Mason plays and the music Linklater uses on the soundtrack. There are occasional throwaway line about ages and grades, and the biggest sign is Mason’s changing hairstyles, but Linklater makes sure his picture unfolds as naturally as possible.
This unfolding is the beauty of Boyhood. Even though filming was spaced out across twelve years, the passage of time always feel real. Like Linklater’s Before trilogy, we come to not only relate to these characters, but also feel like we have a personal relationship with them. We’re part of the family, and we care about how all of these characters are progressing or remaining the same. We may only be seeing moments, but these moments speak to the years in between.
These years would not have felt as authentic without Linklater’s unique filmmaking approach. Boyhood will stand as one of the riskiest and most optimistic productions of all-time. How else can you describe a movie that asks a 12-year commitment of its cast, and then hopes that cast will stay alive and professional over the course of those twelve years? An even bigger risk came with casting Coltrane, whose acting ability matured over the years. Yes, the Harry Potter films took a similar risk with its young actors, but it was a blockbuster franchise with the option of recasting, and it surrounded its kids with a collection of veteran thespians. Boyhood is an indie film where the producer had to keep convincing the production company to pay for this grand experiment that could have blown up in everyone’s face.
But to shoot it traditionally and use age make-up would have greatly lessened the authenticity of the picture. Unless you’re working at a Curious Case of Benjamin Button budget, no make-up is good enough to convincingly age a 6-year-old up to an 18-year-old. Seeing time pass naturally makes us feel a greater connection to these characters, especially Mason and Samantha. I love thinking about when Coltrane’s performance changed from him acting naturally as a shy, thoughtful child to an adult that had to actively consider the character’s personality. To call the film’s production a “gimmick” would be to ignore the profound impact it had on the finished feature. A gimmick can catch your attention, but it ultimately means nothing. In Boyhood, the production meant everything.
This movie is Linklater’s magnum opus. The director has always been fascinated with casual dialogue between characters. Sometimes the results have been tremendous (the Before trilogy) and at other times they’ve been maddening (Fast Food Nation, Waking Life). Although the film has a vast scope, Boyhood is still a collection of scenes of people just talking. But the ability to select the conversations and how to contain them has never been more crucial. Linklater had to choose where to pick up in Mason’s life and then make sure those scenes were strong enough to hold until the next leap forward. He never chooses wrong. Every scene holds our attention whether it’s with humor, fear, warmth, anger, or a host of other emotions.
Even when the picture begins to feel long near the end, I felt bad for even thinking about the conclusion. This was someone’s life. It felt insulting to want to leave Mason behind. I knew him when he was just a little kid fighting with his big sister, and now he’s off at college. How did time go by so fast? I watched him go from a boy to a young man. I watched him struggle with his parents’ choices and his own choices. I watched over a decade of a life, and it was a wonder to behold.