Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Boyhood

Image courtesy of IFC Films.
"Look at the stars, look how they shine for you," sings Chris Martin as we catch our first glimpse of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the young protagonist of Richard Linklater's enormously ambitious and overwhelmingly wonderful new film, as he stares up at the sky while lying in the grass. Indeed, this dreamy opening shot captures youth in all its hopefulness when days are long and it seems that anything - even the stars shining for us - is possible.

Although cinematic experiments on growing up - Michael Apted's "Up" documentaries and Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films - have been done before, I've never seen anything quite like "Boyhood." In 2002, Linklater picked a young boy from Texas (Coltrane) and filmed him every summer for 12 years as the fictional Mason. But while the picture's title references Mason's experiences from the age of 7 years to his heading off for college, the film pays just as much attention to those around him, especially his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) and divorced parents Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette).

The film is especially poignant, not only due to the changes - Linklater aims for subtle shifts rather than dramatic scenes announcing the next stage of life - the characters go through during these 12 years, but also our capability to physically watch how time makes its mark on their faces and figures. The movie is a bold experiment for the director, who I'd imagine must have fretted as to whether all involved would stick it out for 12 years, but also its cast, who allow us to bear witness to their aging processes.

One of the elements that makes the film so unique and special is that, despite one fairly dramatic plot line about Olivia's alcoholic second husband, "Boyhood" mostly focuses on the ordinary facets of these people's lives. For example, there are no scenes of Mason's graduation, but rather we see him with one of his pals in a car heading home after graduation, where a party is waiting for them. And there's nothing to tell us what year it is other than the fact that Mason and Samantha look a little older, a popular song from a particular time is playing on the soundtrack or a sign for a presidential candidate appears in a front yard.

The film plays out in chronological order - we first meet Mason, his mother and Samantha as they are planning to move out of the home in which the kids grew up. Mason is painting over marks on a wall that showed the progression of his growth up to the point at which we've met him. The film itself then becomes that marker as we watch him age.

At the film's beginning, Mason's parents have long been divorced. Olivia is the parent who has been forced to primarily raise the kids and attaches herself to a string of bad husbands and boyfriends. Mason Sr. is the fun father who shows up with gifts, but forgets to make sure that his kids have completed their homework and eaten more than a few French fries at the bowling alley where he takes them.

It's amazing to watch these characters who essentially remain versions of themselves throughout the course of the picture's two hours and 45 minutes but, at the same time, become different people in the most subtle of ways. And despite a few minor characters whom it's very difficult to like, the four main characters of "Boyhood" are people with whom it's a pleasure to spend time. They are all basically people with their hearts in the right place.

It's the commonplace depiction of everyday life that makes "Boyhood" feel so real and, ultimately, so moving. It may seem as if not a whole lot happens during the film - there are no deaths, but one baby is born - but when looking at the sum total of changes that occur in these characters' lives during the 12 years we follow them, it's pretty astounding. The film is an emotional experience without the filmmakers even particularly aiming for it to be such a thing. There's no tugging at the heart strings or speechifying, but rather familiar milestones - grade school, middle school, high school, the mention of prom, first heart break, an awkward discussion of sex with a parent, a first experience with alcohol, birthdays, a graduation, etc.

Linklater's films have often played with the concept of time: "Dazed and Confused" and "Slacker" took place within the course of a single day, while "Waking Life" included discussions on time as well as numerous other philosophical matters. The director's trilogy of "Before Sunrise," "Before Sunset" and "Before Midnight" allowed us to watch a couple (Hawke and Julie Delpy) as their relationship matured over a period of years. "Boyhood" is the filmmaker's most unique study of the effects of his time and, I can say without a doubt in my mind, his best work to date.

This film makes most other American movies appear lazy by comparison. Here's a picture with the highest ambitions - the chronicling of lives over a long period of time - and an unprecedented level of commitment from its cast. "Boyhood" is a lovely film, one that just might make you reflect on your own upbringing and wonder where all the time went.

1 comment:

  1. I enjoyed this review, can 't wait to see it.