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Now Playing: Boyhood

Boyhood
dir: Richard Linklater, USA, 2014
Rating: 10

boyhood

“Time is a river which sweeps me along, but I am the river”
— Jorge Luis Borges

Now playing in Chicago and around the U.S in limited release is Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s much ballyhooed “12-years-in-the-making” intimate epic about one family’s life in 21st century Texas. The film’s formally groundbreaking nature has already been much commented upon by critics since it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January. No one, after all, has ever before attempted to make a fictional narrative feature by shooting the same group of actors over such a long period of time (roughly three days a year for a dozen consecutive years). Linklater’s strategy allows him to show the progression of his protagonist, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, a natural actor at every age), from the first grade through his senior year of high school, but he also devotes considerable time to the other members of Mason’s immediate family: his divorced parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette in an award-worthy performance) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke at his rakish best), as well as his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, also terrific).

Fortunately, there is much more going on here than the mere novelty value of watching a group of actors rapidly age before our eyes. From Slacker (1991) to the Before trilogy (1995/2004/2013), time has always been Linklater’s great subject. Because of the intelligent, daring and sometimes surprising ways that he explores the concept here, Linklater’s latest achieves the status of a magnum opus. Like The Searchers was for John Ford, Boyhood is the purest, most complete expression of Linklater’s considerable artistry to date — the single masterpiece that he has seemingly been working towards for his entire career. Last year, I wrote that Before Midnight established Linklater as the best director of his generation. It is no exaggeration to say that Boyhood establishes him as America’s finest working filmmaker period.

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After only two viewings, I am also tempted to say that Boyhood is the single film that best defines American life in the early 21st century. What is especially impressive about the achievement is that, on a narrative level at least, Linklater does not seem to be striving for virtuosity. There is a surprising lack of drama in the storyline; no one dies, no one gets seriously ill, there are no tragic accidents. It is as if the director knew that his mere concept was dramatic enough and that by focusing on the smaller, more intimate details of growing up (first beer, first heartbreak, etc.), they would cumulatively add up to something momentous. In this sense, Boyhood is similar to — but vastly superior to — Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I thought there was a great movie inside of The Tree of Life that was dying to get out, an autobiographical one involving a boy growing up in 1950s Texas. Certain moments of that film rang so true concerning suburban American childhood that they unexpectedly caused tears of remembrance to well up in my eyes (e.g., children playing kick the can in the street at dusk before being called home for dinner by their mothers).

Unfortunately, Terrence Malick did not trust that The Tree of Life‘s simple domestic scenes would be sufficiently interesting to sustain an entire feature film and so he couched them in pretentious sequences involving digital dinosaurs and voice-over narration cloaked in cosmic-spiritual hokum. Linklater, on the other hand, confidently constructs his entire movie out of such fleeting moments: in one early scene, young Mason looks at a dead bird on the ground. Later, he and a group of friends walk down the street and pass a mentally ill young man who uncontrollably blurts out obscenities. Linklater rarely indicates what Mason is thinking about such things. He merely observes the character observing, and the film, like time itself, marches inexorably on. Later still, when Mason becomes a teenager, he does begin to question things in his own quiet, introspective and thoughtful way. The total effect of watching this gradual, unforced transformation of his character is to bear witness to nothing less than the birth of an individual consciousness.

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A strange feeling came over me as I watched this leisurely paced two-hour-and-46-minute movie (the same length, incidentally, as Transformers: Age of Extinction): at some point I realized that I was actively trying to remember what the characters had looked, sounded and felt like in the earlier portions of the film — when they were literally years younger. This is not something I can recall doing with any other movie, nor any work of art in any medium (aside perhaps from Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the ultimate narrative exploration of time and memory). Boyhood‘s astonishing power to incite viewers to meditate on the nature of memory, and no doubt on their own lives as well, while still in the process of watching it is probably a direct result of Linklater’s smart refusal, in any obvious way, to signal shifts in time. There are no title cards reading “One year later” nor are there any blatant cues within the dialogue. I often found myself questioning if a scene was taking place, chronologically speaking, immediately after the one that had preceded it or if the story had jumped ahead a year — and often found the answer only by noticing whether the actors had similar or different haircuts.

By the time Boyhood reaches its sublime conclusion, viewers have traveled through time with the characters on a journey that more than one commentator has likened to a “period piece set in the present”: from the last days of film stock to the dawn of digital (though the film itself was shot entirely on 35mm to achieve a uniform look), from Coldplay to Arcade Fire, from the invasion of Iraq to the rise of Barack Obama (an occasion for two of the film’s funniest moments, presented back-to-back) not to mention the rise of social media (and, eventually, a growing disillusionment with it). Jean Cocteau, another cinematic poet of time, famously said that a movie camera “filmed death at work” (i.e., because a movie literally shows its performers aging, they are closer to their funerals at the end of shooting than they were at the beginning). Yet by speeding this process up, and condensing 12 years into a single feature, Linklater proves that the reverse is also true: to watch Mason and Samantha transition from children into beautiful young adults is like watching flowers bloom in water — Boyhood shows us life at work better than any film I know.

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Boyhood‘s central conceit, which allows Richard Linklater the uncanny ability to capture the ebb and flow of life as it is experienced over an extended period, also dovetails nicely with his chief strengths as a writer and director, namely his sincerity and generosity of spirit. In spite of creating a name for himself by making zeitgeist-capturing comedies about specific subcultures (e.g.,Slacker and 1993’s Dazed and Confused), Linklater has always thankfully avoided adopting an attitude of condescension to his characters, not to mention resisted the kind of David Foster Wallace-esque hipster irony that has frequently passed for humor in America in recent decades. In this respect, I’m particularly grateful for the realistic — and unfashionably warmhearted — way in which he presents Mason Sr.’s conservative and religious in-laws; they bestow their grandson on his 15th birthday with gifts of a bible and a shotgun, respectively, presents that the budding young artist is happy to accept.

While all of the principal characters in Boyhood are flawed, Linklater also wisely refuses to judge them: Olivia may repeat the mistake of engaging in relationships with hard-drinking and abusive men, and Mason Sr. may be a perennial fuck-up (even after he transitions from GTO-driving “cool dad” to responsible family man, he still offers Olivia money while knowing that his wallet is empty and hoping that she’ll turn him down) — yet there is always the sense that these characters are just fumbling through life like we all do, improvising as they go, trying to do the best they can. The closest thing the movie has to a villain is Bill (Marco Perella), Olivia’s second husband, who becomes an increasingly scary control freak, scene by scene, as his alcoholism worsens. But Linklater extends sympathy even to this character by granting him a moment of horrifying self-awareness. “You don’t like me much, do you, Mason?” Bill asks of his new stepson during a particularly tense dinner scene. “That’s okay. I don’t like me either.” Like all of Linklater’s best work, including much of the rest of this film, it is a moment that feels almost impossibly human.

Note: Boyhood is rated R by the MPAA for “sexual references, drug use and profanity” but I do not think parents should hesitate to take teenage children (even young teens) to see it. They are, after all, the ones most likely to identify with the film’s protagonist — as well as the ones most likely to benefit from observing what Linklater shows as the various paths laying ahead of them.

You can check out the trailer for Boyhood via YouTube below:

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

27 responses to “Now Playing: Boyhood

  • Corrine Strang

    Thanks to your review, I am now looking forward to seeing this film!

  • Joel Wicklund

    Can’t wait to see it. Linklater has been kind of underrated for a long time, so good to see the “Sunrise” trilogy and this getting him the rep he deserves.

  • Jeremy Freeman

    Great Review Smith!!! I think this is one of the best reviews you have written so far. You such a strong feeling for the film that obviously is shown in your writing!!
    Great job once again!
    I saw it again this weekend and tried to focus on the things going on in the background rather that what was happening in the foreground and got such a new enjoyment out of the flick!
    See you tomorrow!
    Jeremy

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks, Jeremy. As someone who’s seen it twice, I know what you mean about focusing on the background. I’m actually going to see it for a third time on Friday and am looking forward to picking up on even more.

  • jilliemae

    I would definitely recommend this movie to a teen, and to see it with his/her parents. The way that “coming of age” issues were dealt with were very tactful, honest and even subtle. For teens and parents, the possible collective cringe-worthy moments were non-existent.

  • Margaret

    I saw an interview with Linklater on CBS This Morning yesterday, and I didn’t realize he directed some of my favorite movies. Great review, Michael, now I REALLY want to see Boyhood.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for commenting, Margaret. A lot of my students say the same thing about Linklater when I teach him in class. They can’t believe the same guy directed so many movies they love. He’s always been kind of an “invisible auteur” and I’m glad this movie is raising his profile a bit.

  • John Charet

    Spot-on review of a great film. I saw Richard Linklater’s Boyhood last week (i.e. the week ranging from July 19th-July 25th) in downtown Chicago. Boyhood is also the third film of this year that I gave * * * * out of * * * * stars to. The other two are Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel and Frank Pavich’s Jodorowsky’s Dune (a documentary). Your comparison between what Linklater achieved with this film and John Ford did with The Searchers is really fascinating and I wholeheartedly agree with your implication that with Boyhood, he has gone from being one of the greatest filmmakers of our generation to the one of the greatest filmmakers of all-time. Ditto for your remarks that Boyhood is the single film that best defines 21st century life. Love your reference to Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In many ways, that one unnamed critic is right that this is a contemporary set period piece. As you said, this 12 year project began in 2002 when 35mm film stock was unknowingly or not entering its final decade of mainstream popularity and released in 2014 when shooting with digital film had now become the mainstream. As you said this was shot in 35mm though and I think it fits the film perfectly. Coldplay first became big a decade ago and Arcade Fire (based on my knowledge) became popular during the mid to late 2000’s. The Iraq war began in 2003 and ended in 2011. Barack Obama became president in 2008 and won a second term in 2012. Ironically enough, he was one of the first democratic senators to have said no from the beginning to going to war with Iraq. Last, but not least it also takes place during the rise of social media which began a decade ago and in this film as you said their is disillusionment with it. Another thing you said that is spot-on is that Linklater is also able to prove the legendary Jean Cocteau’s theory that a movie camera “filmed death at work” wrong. The children Mason Jr. and Samantha age beautifully into young adults. You are also indeed correct about how Linklater has always avoided that David Foster Wallace type humor when it comes to his treatment of his characters. I also as you say love the way he treats Mason Sr. conservative/religious in-laws. Ditto for that abuse boyfriend character. Nobody in Richard Linklater’s film ever comes off as a cartoon or a stereotype. At the end of the year, I will not be surprised If Boyhood comes up at number 1 because no matter how great any other film coming out in the future this year, I doubt they will be as dramatically rich as this one. P.S. I hope it finally scores Richard Linklater a Best Director nomination for next year’s Oscars.

    • michaelgloversmith

      If Linklater doesn’t at least get a Best Director nomination, I think they ought to just close the joint down.

      • Mitchell

        I think I realized that the joint needed to be shut down when I realized the ridiculousness of making movies compete against each other. But I guess it is an integral part of our society. I mean, for Chrissakes, even cooking shows are competitive nowadays and nobody seems to think it is weird.

        I think we need to start a campaign to ban all film competition and possibly ratings as well. I know I will be hit for this by a lot of your followers.

      • michaelgloversmith

        Agreed about awards. They should be for horses and dogs only! I see numerical ratings as more of a necessary evil.

  • Et in arcadia ego

    Great review, for the great film that ‘Boyhood’ is. However, I do not understand why you need to demote ‘The Tree of Life’ in such way in order to cense ‘Boyhood’. When you write “pretentious”, this is all in your mind, and your own interpretation, as you do not know what are the thoughts of Malick about these scenes.
    For me, and I think I am not alone, what you reproach to Malick is coming from his heart and is the purest form of sincerity he could share, as in the unloved but incredible To the Wonder, transforming a personal suffering into something universal.
    I am not a believer, and however the film is universal enough that I have screened it to friends in grief, as it helped me to accept some of my own mournings, and as most of Malick’s works changed my views on the World.
    Sorry for my bad English.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks for the kind words. Your English is just fine. I’m glad The Tree of Life was able to help you and your friends but we will have to agree to disagree regarding its merits. I agree that no one can understand what is in anyone else’s mind – but I also don’t think that should stop us from speculating.

  • Mitchell

    Your review of Holy Motors was single-handedly responsible for my seeing that masterpiece, that I am rushing to my nearest theater to see Boyhood. I am thanking you in advance.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thank YOU, Mitchell. That’s the highest compliment you could’ve paid me. I don’t know if you’re aware of it or not but, in the past four-plus years that I’ve been running this blog, HOLY MOTORS and BOYHOOD are the ONLY two movies on which I’ve bestowed a rating of 10.

  • Ben Fingard

    This was a great review Michael. I saw this movie last week and I loved every minute of its 2 hour 44 minute runtime. I’m definitely sold on Linklater with the non-stop churning out of interesting and unique films he has been creating over the past decades.

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks, Ben. Good to hear from you. I’m amazed at the overwhelmingly positive response this film has been getting from my current and former students. I’ve heard many of them say it’s the best film they’ve ever seen.

  • robchristopher

    Now that I (finally) saw the movie yesterday, I’m finally able to read your piece. You really articulate many of the reasons why I think this film is a genuine masterpiece.

  • benherzberger

    I’ll also just note how charitably Linklater treats his characters. The bible-loving, gun-gifting family in law – that turns into a surprisingly generous encounter. The triage of disclipinarians – alcoholic step father, creepy dark room encounter, and restaurant manager – a progression toward you actually liking the last guy. Would have been easy to paint these characters as “evil” but Linklater didn’t do it. That last scene – what a perceptive way to capture the single most nostalgia-inducing / totally unique thing about that period of life. Beautiful movie.

    • michaelgloversmith

      That “generous encounter” is the heart of the movie. I’ve seen it four times now and I love how, every time I’ve seen it, people start laughing as soon as the grandmother busts out the bible. They’re anticipating, of course, a joke about the grandparents that thankfully never comes.

  • Top Ten Films of 2014 | White City Cinema

    […] Richard Linklater delivered his magnum opus with this 12-years-in-the-making intimate epic about one Texas boy’s life from the ages of six to 18. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s strategy of shooting an average of just 3-to-4 days per year has resulted in a profound meditation on the concept of time, as viewers are asked to observe not only the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) grow and change over the years but also the actors playing his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — and are consequently invited to think about the passage of time in their own lives in the process. Linklater’s masterstroke was his decision to de-dramatize the material; many younger filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film’s lack of external, dramatic action. In place of “plot,” he serves up a series of low-key but universally relatable scenes that movingly capture the essence of what it means to “grow up” in 2 hours and 46 minutes. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in a recent interview, “What (Linklater)’s saying is that life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.” As always with this Linklater, there’s a great deal of humor and heart, but the film’s ingenious central conceit pushes Boyhood into the realm of a game-changer. Full review here. […]

  • Top 100 Films of the Decade, pt. 4 (#25 – #1): A Contest | White City Cinema

    […] Richard Linklater delivered his magnum opus with this 12-years-in-the-making intimate epic about one Texas boy’s life from the ages of six to 18. No mere gimmick, Linklater’s strategy of shooting an average of just 3-to-4 days per year has resulted in a profound meditation on the concept of time, as viewers are asked to observe not only the protagonist (Ellar Coltrane) grow and change over the years but also the actors playing his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) — and are consequently invited to think about the passage of time in their own lives in the process. Linklater’s masterstroke was his decision to de-dramatize the material; many younger filmmakers could learn a thing or two from this film’s lack of external, dramatic action. In place of “plot,” he serves up a series of low-key but universally relatable scenes that movingly capture the essence of what it means to “grow up” in 2 hours and 46 minutes. Or, as Ethan Hawke put it in an interview, “What (Linklater)’s saying is that life doesn’t have to be hyperbolized. What we actually experience is good enough.” As always with this Linklater, there’s a great deal of humor and heart, but the film’s ingenious central conceit pushes Boyhood into the realm of a game-changer. Full review here. […]

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