Mason (Ellar Coltrane), age 6, in Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD.
Courtesy of Matt Lankes. An IFC Films Release.
2014, 164 minutes
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Review by Joshua Handler
Watching Mason/Coltrane grow up is extraordinary. By the time the (extremely fast) 164 minutes have finished, it feels as if you've actually watched this boy's entire childhood. And in a way, you have. As the characters age, so do the actors, which gives the film an intimacy that all other coming-of-age films don't have.
But, Boyhood isn't a typical coming-of-age film, though it has all of the plot elements of one. While it follows a familiar arc, it skips over the major life events and shows us the moments in between, capturing the human moments that we rarely see in movies but that we all experience. This approach and Linklater and his actors' honesty keep the film from falling into cliché.
Most clichés come from life and that's what Boyhood is about. It is about life, about growing up, and finding your place. Because the actors actually age, they mature both in performance ability and in physical appearance, which gives the movie a sense of realism unlike any I've seen before. This movie will have universal appeal because everyone will relate to something in it. For those (myself included) who grew up around the same time as Mason, this movie will be like reliving their childhoods, as all of the cultural pieces of the years depicted in the film were something that they grew up with. Parents will love Boyhood because so much of it is focused around Mason's parents and how they mature over the years.
This movie is like a bunch of mini time capsules held together by a compelling, moving narrative. If you aren't moved by Boyhood, I question your humanity. This story is the story of so many children's lives and to see it condensed into a completely coherent, evenly-paced drama is nothing short of remarkable. It's like reliving childhood all over again.
Boyhood hits some dramatic bumps in its opening hour (the "I hate squash!" line is a meme/GIF-in-the-making), but they rarely affected my enjoyment of the movie. The film really hits its stride when Mason goes into junior high and high school. These sequences carry a lot of weight and are striking in their honesty and emotion. They are populated with romance and mischief, two areas of drama in which Linklater excels (look at the Before films for romance and School of Rock for mischief). He brings a child-like wonder and awe to the romance and to the more sentimental sequences of Boyhood. Rarely does anything feel forced because Linklater's passion and care shines through. He never milks moments for their emotion, but rather observes them. The Before films were so brilliant because they were intimate works that were also observational pieces of cinema. We watch and listen to Celine and Jesse's private conversations the whole time, but share every intimate moment with them. The same can be said for the reason behind Boyhood's brilliance.
This is a movie that is as much about the small moments as it is the entire experience. As mentioned, not every moment works (especially in the first hour), but the cumulative effect of this movie unmatched. Viewing this epic made me feel similarly to when I first saw Blue is the Warmest Color. After viewing Blue, I felt as if I'd lived with the characters for 5-10 years and got to know them well. Because of this, when the film ended, I felt like I'd really been on a new journey and lived in someone else's shoes for a while. When Boyhood is over, it is a shock because this decade-spanning journey is over. You've actually watched a good portion of a life being lived and got to spend time with some wonderful people, yet once it's over, you are yanked out of their lives and are done with them.
The acting from just about everyone is very good, but Coltrane and Arquette stand out. Coltrane was not a professional actor before starting this film, which likely explains his natural performance. Never once did it feel like he was acting or simply delivering lines. It felt as if I was a fly on the wall watching a kid really living life. Arquette has been in some good movies, but she rarely ever impresses me. At the beginning of Boyhood, her performance is a bit stiff, but as the film goes on, she becomes more and more natural as if she's growing into her role. By the film's end, I completely forgot that I was watching a movie star. The same could be said about Hawke's performance (though I usually do like him) and Linklater's direction of the film. As the movie progresses, the filmmaking becomes more fluid and natural.
Overall, Boyhood is a masterpiece. Yes, you are likely sick of hearing that now from every single critic and audience member, but it's true. As a filmgoing experience, viewing Boyhood is unparalleled. At 164 minutes, Boyhood is long, but it is never slow and never less than compelling. And, as a piece of cinema, it is as good as it gets. It will likely go down as one of the crowning achievements of cinema. Disregard the outrageous R rating. Any person whose made it to junior high should see this. They'll get a lot out of it and so will their parents.