Linklater Innovates, Inspires With "Boyhood"

A 6 year-old boy lies on an impossibly green patch of grass, staring up at the clouded, blue sky. His mother is soon to come calling, breaking him of his spell. But for that moment, he’s lost in the towering, white wisps, perhaps imagining them as new friends that he’ll never see again. They share a bond in their brevity, each existing in their current form for a just a moment, never to return. 12 years later, that same boy has grown into a man, still staring off into the distance, still unsure of what the next moment will bring.

Now 18 years old, he’s also 17 and 16 and 15 and so on – perhaps even more past ages than current, having lived those fully. 18 is new, virgin territory, something he’s still feeling out. He’s become a cumulation of the years that got in the way, collecting feelings like insects in a mason jar. 12 years on, his mother is similarly the same and entirely different, hardened by time and only certain in her uncertainty. They’ve lived many of the same moments, so many of them painful, but have somehow retained the same wide-open future they always had, their lives as open to interpretation as ever.

And that’s the splendor of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” Shot intermittently over the course of 12 years, its free-flowing, anti-narrative bent is the ultimate cinematic Rorschach test. Each viewer will take away something different from the onscreen lives of its two leads, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), and his mother (Patricia Arquette) because they must. There’s no hand-holding here on the part of Linklater, who presents these events devoid of theatrics, as true to life as fiction can be. “Boyhood” isn’t so much a movie as it just is. A fearlessly organic slice of life that forces us to re-examine the term “slice of life.”

The other faces that populate the lives of Mason and his mom are much more set in their characterizations, orbiting around them like chess pieces in an unwinnable game of chess. That’s not to say they’re any less effective. Ethan Hawke is ideal in his role as a frequently absentee father to Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), more fully entrenched in a life of arrested development than his own son. And Mason’s parade of alcoholic stepfathers is as horrifying as it is relatable, sure to stir up that inimitable feeling of fear and vulnerability in viewers that hail from broken homes.

The film is as much about the terror that parents do to their kids as it is about childhood, each generation passing down its own insecurities and doubts and fears to their children, merely refining their misery through the decades. As the years roll by, Mason withdraws, turning from wide-eyed kid to listless stoner to budding photographer. It’s often impossible to tell if we’re watching the actual transformation of Coltrane or simply a brilliant actor in the making. Linklater’s previous feature “Bernie,” blurred the lines between fiction and documentary, and “Boyhood” has a similar aim with even more dizzying results.

But the film has the most in common with the filmmaker’s brilliant “Before Sunrise” series, also starring Ethan Hawke. Although less narrative-driven, “Boyhood” is just as successful in recreating the feeling of time constantly slipping through our fingers, leavings our heads full of snapshots may or may not be true to life. As Mason notes near the film’s end that it’s “always right now,” we’re left to wonder if the past and future aren’t just some misguided constructs of human origin, a species permanently dissatisfied with the moment, a thirst for meaning that will never be sated.

The pic is the perfect reference for the definition of “character piece,” one whose characters are more than interesting enough to make up for the lack of a conventional plot. But its making-of story is equally as compelling. Eschewing a typical 1-2 month shoot in favor of 12 summer’s worth of work, Linklater simultaneously imprisoned – no reshoots, demanding of patience – and freed himself, allowing for a film that evolves with its actors lives.

Consequently, not only does the film work as art, it works as an example of art, constructed in a way that’s never been attempted before – on this scale, at least – and unlikely to ever be duplicated. Its only real missteps come in the form of a painfully obvious soundtrack – full of recognizable alternative rock songs that are intended to date the picture, and do so with all the subtlety of a chainsaw – and its increasingly lethargic lead. Coltrane’s enthusiasm for the project wanes before our very eyes, making for an appropriate piece of character development, albeit something that’s not particularly enjoyable to watch.

But the first two-thirds of the 165-minute film are as good as anything its cast and crew have ever taken part in, quite a feat considering their respective filmographies. The piece might be most fascinating as a study in the evolution of a filmmaker, as Linklater made no fewer than 8 other films during the making of “Boyhood,” from “School Of Rock” to “A Scanner Darkly” to “Before Midnight.” That evolution alone makes it essential viewing for film fans, its wonderful character work and radical production style making for pretty incredible perks. Recommended.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Also watch: “Before Sunrise” / “Before Sunset”

“Boyhood”
Release Date: July 11, 2014 (Limited)
Studio: IFC Films
Director: Richard Linklater
Screenwriter: Richard Linklater
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke
MPAA Rating: R (for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use)