Here’s a snooze of a plot: a coming-of-age-tale that begins with a young boy and follows him as he goes through life events until he reaches adulthood. No real story. No climax. Just a camera stalking him for the smaller moments. Oh, and let’s not forget that the film runs nearly three hours in length. Sound excruciating? It isn’t. The method in which writer/director Richard Linklater stages the events and allows them to unfold is brilliant. It’s a mammoth accomplishment that has never been attempted (let alone consummated) before in the realm of film, and the result is a feature that can be rightly considered a cinematic masterpiece, and for all the right reasons.
If you’re a casual moviegoer that has no idea who Richard Linklater is, don’t feel terrible about yourself. You should feel bad (truth hurts), but not terrible, because as it stands, you’re not alone. I would venture to say that the general public has seen some of his more well-known films (like, say, Dazed and Confused) but no one (*cough cough* The Academy) has really publically recognized him enough to give him the household-name status that he deserves. Think about it. This is the guy that has made some great films, whether it’s a stoner comedy like the one mentioned above or general comedies like School of Rock or romantic dramas like the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, a trilogy that has a strategy not unlike that of Boyhood). It’s looking like Boyhood, Linklater’s seventeenth, yes, seventeenth feature film could be the one that introduces more viewers to his craft.
It’s a very special film for Linklater and anyone who has kept up with his work (I admit that I haven’t seen every one of his movies, but I’ve seen a few) for a couple of equally special reasons. The first is that one of the performers (Lorelei Linklater) is his daughter. So as the movie goes on, we see his own daughter grow up, and it’s something that I’m sure he will look back on and find as sentimental and meaningful as some of our parents find old videotapes of us growing up. Secondly and similarly, the film’s strategy also allows the viewer to take a long, hard look at the director himself. If you aren’t familiar with what this movie is about or what’s so special about it, you’re probably confused, so allow me to briefly lay it out for you. Boyhood began shooting in 2002 (yes, twelve years ago), the beginning of a hush-hush production from a director who had, at the time, only made movies like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and the underseen Before Midnight. He cast a young boy (Ellar Coltrane) and had this idea of getting with him and the rest of the cast (Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Loreilei Linklater, and a few others) once a year for the next 12 years and shoot for a few days. Right there is a level of commitment and a true incarnation of the phrase “putting your balls on the table.” What if something would’ve gone wrong? What if by the sixth year of filming, Ellar decided that he didn’t want to be a part of the project any longer? What if someone had gotten sick? What if someone had died? Thankfully, none of those potential circumstances arose, and the project is completed. What a sigh of relief for Linklater and the crew, who have spent the last twelve years making it happen.
Now that I’ve laid out the film’s unique production structuring, let me go back to the point of said structuring allowing us to look at Linklater himself. Since 2002, he has become a better filmmaker, as could be expected from any filmmaker. So, as the scenes that were filmed year after year unravel, so does Linklater’s talent. It’s incredible to watch a single film in which we can see a filmmaker grow throughout the course of the running time, as opposed to seeing improvement through multiple films over a number of years. It is assuredly something you have to see to believe.
Boyhood is 165 minutes, a hard pill to swallow for anyone looking for a nice little coming-of-age story that won’t take up too much time. Somehow, though, the time zips by at a high rate of speed, feeling long, yes, but ending on a note that doesn’t make you say, “Whew, I’m sure glad that’s finally over.” Much like Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, another extremely long film, this picture ended with me longing for more of its characters, something that is difficult for any nearly three-hour long feature to accomplish. But Linklater’s script (which surely changed as the years went on and new forms of technology entered our world) finds the best ways to entertain us without really forming much of a climactic story. It’s incredible how it all worked out.
Throughout the course of the movie we see Mason Jr. (Coltrane’s headlining character) go through the struggles of boyhood as his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) has trouble keeping a man, going through a set of boyfriends and husbands that aren’t nearly as cool or caring as his father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Mason Jr. and his sister Samantha (the director’s daughter) spend most of their time with Mom, some of their time with Dad, and they try to maintain love for each other as certain circumstances become unavoidable. But as I stated before, nothing really happens. It’s hard to pinpoint my favorite bits because so many elements of these characters’ relationships are fascinating. The father-son bits are there, with the two Masons interacting and socializing about life (girls, life, sex). At one point in 2008 as they are camping together, Mason Jr. tells his dad how his new girlfriend didn’t like the three best movies of that summer (Tropic Thunder, The Dark Knight, and Pineapple Express). Later in the same scene, the two discuss whether or not they will ever make another Star Wars movie (it’s hard not to smile during that scene because you know the actors had no idea whether there would be or not when it was filmed seven years ago).
The scenes between Mason Jr. and his sister, her with her father, and the three of them all together come less often than other relationships (the film does primarily follow Mason Jr., after all), but the one person that does get a large amount of screen time and character development is Olivia. She is spectacularly played by Patricia Arquette and her scenes with Mason Jr. are some of the film’s most emotional and satisfying. But even her character alone, who starts as a low income-earning single mother and ends up a somewhat successful college professor, is deep. I can’t overstate Arquette’s performance; she’s great, as is the rest of the cast. It’s interesting to see Ethan Hawke in particular, just because he is the actor with whom I am most familiar with. He grows throughout the runtime, as does everyone else, and I found Hawke’s performance to be perfect as the good dad who just has bad luck. But the star of Boyhood is Ellar Coltrane, in what is sure to be a career starting performance. Even at a young age he was his character and as the years go on and his character grows, so does he, literally. It’s really something to watch all of these characters and the actors portraying them grow, but Coltrane’s performance is excellent, worthy of an Oscar nomination at the very least, and I will be disgusted if his performance doesn’t get recognized.
I can already tell that some people are going to watch Boyhood in a few years and say that it was all about the hype and that it’s actually a three-hour long drag of a coming-of-age story that has no real climactic event to make it actually mean something. Shame on them. Boyhood is a cinematic masterpiece that doesn’t exist to tell a typical beginning-middle-and-end story. It’s an experimental timeline depicting the growth of its characters, its actors, and most importantly, its writer and director. Richard Linklater is a true master, and hopefully this is the film that gets him the recognition (and the Oscar) that he deserves.
Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater
Written and directed by Richard Linklater