Boyhood (Flack’s Review)

Posted on | August 9, 2014 | 6 Comments

Boyhood charts Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18SPOILERS!

With Boyhood, a childhood saga that follows a boy’s life from age 6 to 18, director Richard Linklater has pushed the capabilities of film to the fullest. For a couple of days a year for 12 years, he shot the same cast and tracked the growth of his child star Ellar Coltrane with genuine, unprecedented truth. This couldn’t have worked with another medium; it works because it is a film. Boyhood is a cinematic triumph that reaffirms the power of the movies. If that sounds like hyperbole, go watch it.

Boyhood opens with a shot of the sky, backed by the sounds of Coldplay’s 2000 hit “Yellow”. Cut to Mason, the boy we will follow for 12 years (or 165 minutes), lying on a grass field and looking at the clouds. His mother, Olivia, tells him it’s time to go.  We soon learn Olivia is a struggling teacher and that he has an annoying, star-student older sister named Samantha (Lorlei Linklater, daughter of Richard and appropriately irritating). Mason spends his time with neighborhood friend Tommy, doing graffiti, biking, and flipping through a catalog of barely-clothed women. He moves to Houston, where he reconnects with his liberal musician father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who weaves in and out of Mason and Samantha’s lives. Olivia gets remarried and divorced, and remarried again. Mason finds new friends, faces bullies, experiments with drugs and drinking, and suffers break-ups. He tries to figure out what he wants to spend his life doing and looks for the meaning of it all. We watch him grow from being a bored gamer who could care less about school to an angst-ridden rebel to an endlessly chatty shutterbug slacker. Life goes on.

A young mason (Ellar Coltrane) at school in Boyhood (2014)Watching Ellar Coltrane grow up as Mason is a revelatory experience.  It was a considerable gamble on Linklater’s part, casting a kid who could grow up to be anyone. That’s what makes Coltrane’s performance so uniquely impressive. We’re there, watching, as he grows taller, his voice deepens, and he, ultimately, arrives as a powerful screen presence. It’s a terrific performance, made up of twelve terrific performances. Coltrane smartly shies away from overacting and the spunky, perky attitude of typical child actors. He makes Mason a quiet and timid youngster, then a chatty creative type. It’s one of the most vivid, detailed, and realistic kid performances ever.

Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) high-school graduation after-party in Boyhood (2014)

Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are no less powerful as his parents, wisely underplaying two realistic roles. As a single mom trying to go back to college, raise two kids, and get remarried, Arquette is subtly remarkable. Olivia is a nuanced character, who reveals layers of sophistication, sorrow, and love throughout the film. Arquette has a particularly poignant scene with Coltrane near the end of the film that may reduce many viewers to tears. Hawke is just as wonderful but gets some more lighthearted moments as Mason Sr.: a compassionate but often absent dad, an angry ex-husband, and a musician who’s forced to move on to other work. Whether he’s having fireside conversations about Star Wars or discussing the meaning of life with teenage Mason, Hawke is understatedly funny and unexpectedly wise, despite his modest screen time. Arquette and Hawke’s underplayed skill dawns on you as the film draws near it’s end, just as Mason realizes how important his parents have been in his life.

Boyhood is very much an actor-centric film, but it’s also a landmark directorial triumph for Richard Linklater, who mixes indie aesthetics with documentary realism. At the start of filming, he had no script for the film, preferring to come up with new ideas each year. Linklater was also wise to focus not on coming-of-age film cliches but smaller, more meaningful moments like camping trips with dad, a high school graduation after-party with family, and a symbolic, spiritual hike that ends the film. Actually, Boyhood, like life, is a whole made up of lots of little moments that cumulate into something meaningful over time. Linklater doesn’t make his thoughts on growing up too obvious, instead letting you develop your own take on the film’s messages. Yet there’s a profound beauty in how he deals with the fleeting nature of childhood and the idea that life is just a bunch of seemingly unimportant moments that add up to something greater. There’s a particularly poignant scene near the end of the film where Olivia, talking to Mason before he drives off to college, comments on how her life is one big chain of events that goes by too quickly. After three marriages, going back to school, and sending her kids to college, the only major event left in her life is death, she tells Mason. Capturing small yet significant memories of childhood and turning them into a thoughtful mediation on life isn’t an easy task, but Linklater has succeeded.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette) with Olivia (Lorlei Linklater) and Mason (Ellar coltrane) in Boyhood (2014)

Charting Mason and his family’s story over the first decade or so of the 21st century, Boyhood also functions as a reflection on the 2000’s so far. Historical and cultural milestones can be seen throughout the film: Mason and Samantha attend a party celebrating the release of the latest Harry Potter book, their father talks to them about the war in Iraq, and Mason is always playing with the latest video game console. In the film’s funniest scene, Mason Sr. has his kids put Obama signs on their neighbors lawns – and even snatch a McCain sign from one house. Adding to the nostalgia-inducing time capsule element is the wonderful 00’s-spanning soundtrack, which includes The Black Keys, Vampire Weekend, Wilco, and others. Years from now, the film will serve as a seminal snapshot of 21st century life.

Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) in Boyhood (2014)

Has there ever been a movie like Boyhood? Michael Apted’s documentary 7 Up documentary series and Francois Truffuat’s fictional Antoine Doinel films have followed kids as they grow older over many films. Yet Boyhood is so remarkably specific in telling the story of Mason’s family and so universally relatable in charting a child’s growth that it manages to create one of the most believable portraits of childhood, family, and life ever captured on film. It’s also one of the most funny, reflective, beautiful, tragic, and absorbing movies you’ll see all year. The hype about it has been towering, yes, but believe it. By following a boy from 6 to 18, Richard Linklater has created an entertaining, heart-rending portrait of 21st century family life in America. It forces you to think, moves you to tears, compels you to laugh, and encourages repeat viewings. An enthralling, unforgettable triumph of cinema as original, engrossing, delightful, and heartbreaking as anything in recent memory.


6 Responses to “Boyhood (Flack’s Review)”

  1. Cousin Gerald
    August 10th, 2014 @ 9:12 am

    Thanks for getting this out so quickly. OK. I’ll try to see it in a theatre.. .but at 165 minutes a DVD would make it a lot easier. What an amazing undertaking. Great seeingbyou last week. Miss you already.

  2. Andrea Itkin
    August 11th, 2014 @ 7:33 am

    Beautiful review. I’m so excited about seeing this film and discussing it with you and Flick when I see you.

  3. Steve Itkin
    August 11th, 2014 @ 7:51 am

    A powerful film and an equally powerful review. The shortest 165 minutes I ever spent in the theatre.,,we wanted it to go on for another 12 years! Gerald; go to the theatre!

  4. flickflack
    August 11th, 2014 @ 9:33 am

    Wow, Flack! Your review was even more enthusiastic than I imagined. I agree with your thoughts on the film; it is certainly one that will be remembered for a long time and looked back on as a snapshot of life. I also think it is a movie in the traditional sense, that it should (Gerald!) certainly be seen in the theater.

    Nice review,

  5. Abid
    August 11th, 2014 @ 9:25 pm

    We sent to see the movie with another couple and we exchanged our thoughts about the movie . We were impress by the story and the acting.
    Your review is very thoughtful and captured every aspect of the film. The depth of the research you have done showed a great passion to movies without hesitation to express professional critic.

  6. Jeff Howell
    August 15th, 2014 @ 6:11 pm

    Great to see you today. Loved your review and wished all my freshmen high school students could write as well.

    Boyhood was one of a kind, but I look forward to the day when you gentlemen tell an even better story. The story is everything in my book, but for Linklater it’s the moment and dialog, while unique, it’s not the most compelling thing I thing you can do with a movie.

    I wish I had asked you for your commentary on Robin Williams’s career, most of which you can view ( eg. Doubt fire, Alladin, jumanji.

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