Boyhood (2014)

23 Aug


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of following characters through real time. I think that’s why I enjoy Michael Apted’s “7-Up” documentary series, because each film, released every seven years, shows the same people as they progressed since we last saw them. Richard Linklater did kind of the same with his “Before” trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight”), following fictional characters through real time (in this case, 18 years with nine years between each film). But with “Boyhood,” Linklater has taken that concept quite a step further. He has made a film that shows moments from the life of a boy growing into a man over the course of twelve years. How did Linklater do this? By getting his core cast together once every year for 12 years. It’s not exactly like “Hoop Dreams,” the documentary that followed the lives of two young men closely for about six years—each year, Linklater and his cast & crew get together and make a short film, and when it’s finished, it’s all compiled into one big epic to create the ultimate slice-of-life; a chronological coming-of-age tale showing the life of a young man from age 6 to 18.

By making it like this, the actors are allowed to develop their portrayals of the characters as they age. We get to watch these actors grow up on screen and it changes the way we look at this film in a sense of knowing it’s the same actor playing the same character rather than having different actors play the same character from time to time in most movies.

“Boyhood” is a great film and is already being hailed as a masterpiece and a landmark film, and thankfully it’s not a gimmick film where its background history makes it great. I’m not sure what all I can say about it that no one else has already, but I’ll give it a shot.

Let’s start with the actors and characters. Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter) play siblings Mason and Samantha. Mason is first seen as a typical, curious-minded little boy who constantly fights with his sister who is a precocious little brat. We follow these two children over the next decade as they grow and mature as events in their lives slowly shape up their future. We see them do what most young people do as they grow up—discover the opposite sex, experience heartbreak, try some drugs, drink alcohol. By the end of the film, when they’re both in college, Mason is a thoughtful, good-hearted college freshman and Samantha is a self-assured young woman, and they both know the feeling of freedom, having moved out of their mother’s house.

But we’re also treated with professional actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette who also play characters that grow. Arquette plays Mason and Samantha’s single mother, Olivia, whom they live with. Olivia is struggling to make ends meet and trying to keep a social life intact while also carrying the huge responsibility of motherhood while the kids’ father, Mason Sr. (Hawke), is away in Alaska following some dream. (At least, that’s what Olivia and her mother tell the kids—for all we know, Mason Sr. could be in jail or they just didn’t want him around at this time; it’s like when your parents tell you, when you’re a little kid, how they “sent your dog to live on a farm.”) We get to see Olivia come of age in this film as well—she will marry and divorce a second time, explore new romantic relationships, struggle with finances, go back to school, finally get a job she likes, and ultimately find herself. When you first see her, she is a somewhat bitter young woman who isn’t all that proud to be a parent; that becomes clear when she has to call off a date because of Mason and Samantha at home—she states out loud that she’d like nothing better to do than to go out and have fun. By the end of the film, she tries to stay connected to her children and resents the fact that they’ll both be leaving.

Mason Sr. is in these kids’ lives as well, seeing them on every other weekend and during summers. At first, he’s the typical absentee father with big ambitions that make him sound like he’s just full of it (and he has a kick-ass car which he will have to sell later on, to Mason’s disappointment). He’s in a band and likes to spew some B.S. life lessons (wait ‘til you hear his philosophy when he takes Mason and Samantha bowling), but over the course of the film, he does become a better person and even settles down with a new wife and kid while still staying connected to Mason and Samantha whom he still loves.

Hawke and Arquette each give some of the best performances of their careers (Arquette, in particular, deserves Best-Supporting-Actress consideration come wintertime), but it’s amazing how these two unprofessional child actors, Coltrane and Linklater, were able to remain in character all these years even as they go through their own growing-up in their own real lives.

Things happen in this film that don’t always pay off because that’s the way life is. Sometimes it is random; mostly it is pivotal; other times it’s essential; and so on. And “Boyhood” is very successful at showing these moments in the lives of these people, particularly Mason (hence the title suggesting his coming of age). People come in and out of their lives and we don’t hear back from a few of them; one day they’re interested in one thing but indifferent about it later; etc. I think the only time “Boyhood” comes close to semi-typical melodrama is when Olivia’s second husband, an alcoholic, loses his temper at the dinner table and pushes Mason, Samantha, and his own two kids around when Olivia leaves for a while. (That dinner-table scene is almost laughable, but it’s not very long.) Soon after, he isn’t seen again after Olivia and the kids have left him. Where did he go? What will become of the other kids? Will they be put in a foster home if the alcoholic is reported unfit for parental care? Life just goes on like that.

“Boyhood” is a simple, universal story, told through Mason’s eyes, that is so easy to relate to. I felt like I knew this kid or even was this kid, and I definitely felt like I knew those around him. That’s why it moved me so much. As time goes on, as the film continues in its nearly-three-hour running time, it’s very, very important that the growth and coming-of-age of this kid and his family are shown. Not only did I see them grow; I wanted to know what was going to happen to them for another 12 years. “Boyhood” is an ambitious project that absolutely paid off, and it’s by far one of the best films of 2014.

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