Review: Boyhood

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There’s a simple reason for why coming of age tales are among the most popular narratives in storytelling: they are universal. Yes, the environments and situations in which they occur differ from story to story, but this primary theme comes from shared human experience. Everyone has endured the tribulations and banalities of growing up, and so we identify with the coming of age story because it reflects back on us, contextualizing our experiences. It gives those experiences meaning, when in the moment they may have seemed less significant. In many ways, Richard Linklater’s latest film is the ultimate story of growing up because it quite literally unfolds that way. Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s twelve year opus, deeply moving and profound in unheralded ways, without ever approaching self importance.

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a pretty ordinary kid growing up at the dawn of the new millennium. He’s introduced at the porous age of six, lying on the grass and staring up at the sky, perhaps contemplating big life questions, or really, just passing the time until he’s picked up from school. While his mother (Patricia Arquette) is attentive, she’s also consumed in a tumultuous post-divorce life, meaning frequent moves around the state of Texas. Mason also has to deal with his snarky older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and the occasional getaway with his anchorless father (Ethan Hawke). Over the course of the next twelve years, his interests change, he makes new friends, and he evolves into a thoughtful young man.

Indeed, he just grows up, as do the primary cast surrounding him. Casting children is always a challenge because one runs the risk of either shyness or excessive exuberance on camera, but from the first closeup on Mason’s face, it’s abundantly evident that Ellar Coltrane was a genuine find. He has an immediate curiosity and intelligence about him that develops naturally as he grows, and one never gets the impression that he’s giving a performance. He’s living as Mason, and its one of the great child performances, regardless of the film’s unusual structure. The nuclear family of performances is equally worthy of note, from Lorelei Linklater’s initially bratty sister growing up into a moderately rebellious college girl, to Patricia Arquette’s mother, embattled on a yearly basis and coming to terms with the unpredictability of her life. Ethan Hawke is also a supporting standout as the fun loving but flawed father, turning on the charms with ease. Scenes focusing on his rapport with Coltrane, who grows to look very much like him, is where Boyhood shines brightest.

Though it charts its course over a twelve year period, it would be a mistake to characterize Boyhood as a mere three hour montage of this particular child’s development. While some of Richard Linklater’s best films are set in limited timeframes such as in Dazed and Confused or the Before series, the epic timespan of Boyhood allows for investigation of very specific moments. Each sequence that represents a new year yields new findings, some profound and others mundane, all of which come to inform Mason’s life. Several story lines that develop, such as the mother’s second marriage and Mason’s relationship with a girl in high school, but nothing is plot driven. There is not a single moment or scene that feels manufactured or contrived. Certain leaps in time are taken in which the gaps must be filled by the audience, but it never feels as if information is being withheld. There are no titles to indicate that another year has passed, although cultural events involving politics and music are often present yet never obtrusive. As it moves from one year to the next, its fascinating to see these people, parents included, gradually age. In this sense, Boyhood is the best film I can think of that demonstrates the imperceptibly sudden passage of time.

Richard Linklater has been making feature films for over two decades, and if there’s a time to recognize his mastery of the medium, then there’s no better film to make the case than Boyhood. His acute attention to dialogue and detail are abundant here, and the naturalism of the performances is consistently disarming. It’s that type of authenticity that so many directors and actors strive for their entire careers, and Linklater unearths it every time. His talent with screenwriting and directing actors is only scratching the surface, however. Linklater is perhaps the least pretentious filmmaker making some of the most profound films of the last couple decades. He’s taking elemental concepts like love or growing up and investigating their cores, thus making them accessible. No person had the exact same childhood as Mason, and yet we all can find pieces of ourselves in him.

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~ by romancinema on July 12, 2014.

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