The Critic: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

boyhoodBy Spencer. When you write movie reviews, there’s nothing more boring than finding new ways to heap praise upon a picture. So I’m sorry to say that Boyhood isn’t just the frontrunner for the Oscar this year; it’s one of the finest films ever made. The premise is simple: Richard Linklater (Dazed And Confused, Before Sunrise) filmed the life of a child (Ellar Coltrane in a star-making role) a little each year over the course of 12 years, capturing for the first time in movie history a truly realistic coming-of-age story. That’s the gimmick. But Boyhood is so much more than that.

Starring Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as divorced parents, and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s own daughter) as the older sister, Samantha, Boyhood begins when young Mason is six years old. From there, the story takes all of the twists and turns that life does, meaning that nothing in the script is neat or convenient. Hawke is hilarious and genuine as the absentee father who clearly adores his children and just hasn’t quite left his own childhood behind yet. Arquette is Oscar-worthy in her portrayal of a single mom trying to juggle the demands of school, work, love, and children. Lorelei Linklater adds spunk and believability beyond her years, and Coltrane — well, he’s perfect. From start to finish, he’s perfect.

25-boyhoodThe devotion to reality isn’t just in the time frame and the aging of the cast. It’s in the ordinary moments that Linklater chooses to capture — fights in the backseat, camping trips with Dad, chores, a bad haircut, a baseball game, a conversation with a new classmate, a bashful connection with a pretty girl, a lecture from a teacher about responsibility. Along the way, voices lower, acne comes and goes, bodies fill out — and the movie shows it all, without the need for embellishment or even comment.

Given the subject matter, you’d expect this movie to be a compendium of milestones and firsts — the first kiss, the first fistfight, the first time trying cigarettes or alcohol, the first experience with sex — but the genius of Boyhood is that it skips all that. Instead, it peeks in between those moments (or maybe just a little after). You see Mason making out with a girl in the back of a station wagon, and the context tells you he’s done it before. You see him drinking beer and smoking pot at parties like it’s unremarkable. You see him naked in bed with his girlfriend, but they’ve been together a year by this point and it’s nothing new for either of them. Life is a series of moments, and all Linklater does is show them to you, unadorned.

Screen-Shot-2014-04-25-at-18.03.52It’s this selectivity in focus that makes Boyhood feel so completely real. That, and a script that’s smart enough to portray young life without any of the easy Hollywood stereotypes. Mason and Samantha have their moments of rebellion, but they’re also well-meaning and caring, and they’re searching for direction in their lives. They go to parties and do the usual drinking, but they also stress over homework and picking a college. They are awkwardly shy at times but they’re learning how not to be. They’re embarrassed by their parents but they love them just the same. They’re normal kids. And when was the last time you could say that about anyone in a movie?

Likewise, Arquette and Hawke play their parts with humanity and understatement. Actors of their pedigree might be tempted to court Oscar with a display of tearjerking or a well-placed monologue full of shouting. But here they’re just parents, struggling with those awkward years when the details of their kids’ lives have to be pried out of them, and slowly but surely revealing through their choices and their frustrations that adulthood, no less than childhood, is a series of fuck-ups and fumbling hopes.

Ellar Coltrane as Mason in BoyhoodBoyhood is obviously meant to be a nostalgia trip, but some of the fun is in the way it manages to do this on multiple levels. It’s peppered with pop culture references that date the story’s progress — I won’t ruin them for you, because they’re some of the biggest laughs — and political developments ranging from the war in Iraq to the transformative 2008 election. The soundtrack covers territory from Britney to Bright Eyes to Arcade Fire, but also smartly dabbles in The Beatles and Pink Floyd during those years when any teenager would be reaching back to discover the classics.

And for those, like me, who grew up in Texas (which I know accounts for a good chunk of our readership at S&N), the movie hits home in a particularly special way. Linklater hails from Houston and the state has featured prominently in his work before (see Dazed And Confused). But Boyhood travels all over the state, and in the process, captures so many moments that are distinctly Texas — food, music, politics, religion, high school football. As a native Texan and a child of divorce myself, I saw so much of my own boyhood in this movie, and I can tell you, nostalgia this potent should be bottled and sold.

Funny, sad, hopeful, and insightful, Boyhood achieves something that no other movie ever has: absolute authenticity. It’s a masterpiece — and I’m not sorry to say it.

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