Ordinary, Epic, Personal, and Reflective: A Review of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.

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Film: Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater
Primary Cast: Ellar Coltrace, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella
U.S. Release Date: 18 July 2014

Boyhood has finally reached my local theater hooray! Unfortunately, my local theater is shoddy as hell, so I saw a sizeable chunk of film with the sound a bit screwy which was distracting. Oh well.

Also, this is the first Linklater film I have seen because I am a loser sorry. Whether it will be the last, remains to be seen.

Boyhood, the Movie
Boyhood follows the life of Mason (Coltrane) from ages 6 to 18. The film proceeds chronologically, but frequently leaps forward months into the future with no real explanation of what happens in between. As young children, Mason and his older sister Samantha (Linklater) are raised by their single mother (Arquette) and have little to no contact with their irresponsible father (Hawke). Eventually, Mason’s mother remarries one of her professors, Bill (Perella), which results in Mason and Samantha gaining two siblings. By this point, Mason and Samantha have also begun seeing their father more regularly. Over time, Bill’s drinking worsens and he grows violent. Mason’s mother takes her children, flees Bills abuse, and divorces him. Eventually, she becomes a professor herself and remarries again. Having grown much more responsible and level-headed with age, Mason’s father also remarries. Over the course of the film, Mason and Samantha are forced to move several times. At the film’s end, Mason has graduated high school and moved away to college, leaving his mother with an empty nest.

As I’m sure everyone knows by now, Richard Linklater shot Boyhood over a 12 year period with the same main cast throughout. While much fuss has been made over the time it took to make Boyhood, it is crucial to the final product. Sure, a film telling a similar story (on the surface) could have been made with multiple actors playing Mason and Samantha as they get older, but it simply would not have felt the same. And if Boyhood is interested in anything, it’s feelings. As I am sure many reviewers have remarked, there is just something about Boyhood and its characters that feels real. Making the film differently (i.e. in an easier, more typical manner) would have resulted in a film that did not feel as real. As it is, Boyhood, feels so “real,” that it’s easy to forget it’s a scripted and carefully constructed film. Linklater’s use of the same cast for 12 years is not as much of a gimmick as some may think, regardless of whether it helps get people into the theater; rather, the experience of watching Mason and Samantha (and Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater) and, to a lesser extent, their parents, grow up on screen so realistically is an essential element of the film. Such an experience is not the film’s only merit, but it’s enough to justify the price of admission.

Review Proper Yeah
Edit: So, since publishing this review, I have soured on this film just a bit. I still agree with nearly everything I say below to some extent, but I also wish that Linklater had taken the time to craft a more compelling story. I wish that more effort had gone into the writing and that the whole thing felt less ambling. In short, I’m torn. Anyway, here’s what I thought just after I saw it:

For the most part, the performances in Boyhood are natural and seem effortless. Arquette as Mason’s mother is particularly good, as is Hawke (especially later in the film). Coltrane carries the film in a quiet, convincing fashion. Lorelei Linklater falters just a bit by overacting early in the film, but not so much as to kill it’s illusion of reality. Watching the film, it’s hard not to believe that that characters really are a family living the life you are seeing. Moreover, one also comes to believe in the reality of their life between the scenes. The world of Boyhood is far less closed-off than that of most films. These characters lived before the film began and they continue living after it’s end. At times, the film almost feels like a documentary. Boyhood doesn’t show viewers 12 years of material because no one would watch it, but with its writing, editing, and performances, it convinces us that is it could if it wanted to.

The scope of Boyhood is impressive, and it’s impact quietly profound. The film is poignant and has a huge heart. Some may be turned off by just how “normal” everyone in the film is, but boo on them. There is no exciting action, intense romance, or blatant tragedy in this film. There isn’t any CGI or sweeping score either. That’s fine. Boyhood doesn’t need any of that. And if that’s what you are looking for, look elsewhere. Or, consider the fact that “real” life might just be enough.

Though some moments are certainly more tense and dramatic than others, Boyhood doesn’t depict any overtly tragic or spectacular events. No one dies, nothing terribly improbable happens. And, it’s for the better. ‘Life’ usually doesn’t feel that spectacular, but that doesn’t make it meaningless. The film is quiet. It doesn’t not move is a clear direction nor does it move very quickly. And yet, like life, it is over in a flash. Near the end of the film, Mason’s mother breaks down over just how quickly life goes. When she did, I was moved to tears. One day, my life will pass away, and it will seem to do so just as quickly as Mason’s did on the screen.

Above all, Boyhood’s strength is in the sheer number of opportunities it provides for reflection and introspection. This is a film that invites viewers to constantly think back on their own lives, which greatly increases it’s emotional impact and makes viewing the film a deeply personal experience. The seemingly ordinary nature of many of the events portrayed in the film (moving, going camping, watching the parents argue, eating dinner, going to school, etc.) helps make every bit of the film relatable to just about everyone on some level. The potential for viewers to find themselves somewhere in this film is truly amazing. For obvious reasons (including the mention of 9/11 and the film’s depiction of a Harry Potter book release), millennials in particular may feel a strong attachment to this film, but I see no reason to think that Boyhood‘s affective power is limited to a single generation.

Running nearly 3 hours, Boyhood is a long film, but I never once felt that it was long while viewing it. Surely this is a testament to the film’s editing as well as to just how engrossing the film can be. If one were to actually summarize every event/episode in Boyhood it would make for a very long piece of text that really wouldn’t say anything at all about the film itself. Boyhood shows viewers a series of snapshots (I do not think it a coincidence that Mason’s primary hobby is photography) of Mason’s life and of the lives around him. Taken together, the snapshots add up to much more than the sum of their parts. Boyhood takes a series of rather ordinary events and renders them epic and interesting. Like Mason’s photographs of everyday objects, Boyhood asks viewers to look at the everyday in a new, more profound light. Those viewers that do so, will be better off for having seen it. 

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading. What did you think of Boyhood? Feel free to leave a comment letting me know.

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