Bold Concept Matures Into Striking Ode to Time in 'Boyhood'

Directed by: Richard Linklater; Runtime: 146 minutes
Grade: A

Few films are as appreciated sight unseen as Richard Linklater's Boyhood, his decade-long project in depicting the maturation of a boy from his prepubescent years all the way to his high-school graduation. The idea itself, filtered through the lens of the slice-of-life director responsible for Dazed and Confused and the Before ... series, amasses its own mix of expectation and respect for its ambition before the first frame even appears: the sporadic gathering of the same actors across a twelve-year period to tell an observable and cohesive coming-of-age story, of both the boy himself and the family around him. For the film to exist at all is a marvel; however, Linklater does things with the material befitting a director whose artistic method goes beyond simply gluing together scenes that sprawl across time. Cleverly perceptible transitions between years and unostentatious references to each time period allow Mason's story, at times subtle and other times harrowing, to blossom into a marvelous portrayal of growing up, parenting, and the path that leads someone towards discovering who they are.

Instead of banging out a traditional synopsis for Boyhood, it'd be easier to list off a stream of themes -- intermittent absence of a (not-so-bad) biological parent, alcohol abuse, moving between towns, peer pressure, employment, interacting with the opposite sex -- than force the film to have more of a finite narrative than it really has. Let's just go with something simple: written and directed by Linklater, Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) story captures the nuances, both physical and emotional, of a young boy's growth into the man he's intended to be. His mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), struggles with the lack of a father figure in raising both her children. The attitude of her eldest, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), towards Mason can be described as tolerant at its best, though that also kinda seems to apply to her outlook on life itself as she gets older. His frayed-edged father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), isn't around very much and can't seem to hold down a job between musings of being a musician, but ultimately he's a caring and nurturing individual who's kept at arm's length for a number of reasons.

Then, there's Mason, whose soulful eyes and hushed disposition hold a specific purpose in Boyhood. Aside from the fact that he's obviously a decent kid without behavior or authority issues, his personality doesn't really shine at first, largely because he's absorbing the events transpiring around him instead of directly reacting to them -- until he's pushed over a line. He's an observer, our eyes and ears into his powerless world, something that takes hold in him and never seems to let go over time. It's a truly singular experience to watch Ellar Coltrane change gradually between each segment of his character's life: the emergence of his voice as an actor masquerades underneath Mason's growth into a subtle, tolerant personality, with life and art constantly imitating each other as he matures. Whether Boyhood would have worked if Mason had been more assertive and extroverted is hard to tell; that said, his reserved attitude feels suitable for the youngest sibling in an at-times chaotic and volatile environment.

As Mason responds to the world around him, so too does Richard Linklater's perspective as a filmmaker between the segments of Boyhood, yet it never feels like he's produced individual vignettes despite the jumps in time and shifts in theme. Working off $200k-a-year funding with immense creative freedom, the project slowly reveals itself to be a patchwork tapestry that understands how to make the events in Mason's life come across as both episodic and seamless, with a clear idea of what the final product's going to look like. Linklater's rich taste in music and grasp on modern culture, from video-game systems and Harry Potter to political races, recalls the time period in understated yet noteworthy bursts that mesh together with the evolving family dynamics. Subtle things, even happy accidents, allow the progression of time to be observable, inviting the audience to pay attention those small details -- even Mason's hairstyle -- as natural reminders. Linklater's coming-of-age as a director can also be seen in parallel with Mason's story; the brisk energy in his youth feels more like Before Sunset, which then embraces the calmer and more methodical tempo found in Before Midnight during his later years.

Written by Linklater with generous assistance from his actors to inform the temperament of their individual characters, Boyhood feels less like a structured coming-of-age yarn and more like a stream of consciousness in the mind of an almost-adult reminiscing on his youth before taking big steps into adulthood. Just like life, there isn't much of an act structure to Mason's experiences; distressing and life-altering events occur early in his youth that elevate the dramatic tension, and everything else afterward feels tame in comparison. That's the way unshakable experiences operate sometimes, though, and that's part of what makes Boyhood a poignant piece of work: Linklater depicts the ways in which the family struggles with what darkens their past, and how it impacts who they become in the future. Shadows and glimmers of experiences endured by other people emerge in Mason's story, whether it's as simple as going to school with a bad haircut and dealing with a problem sibling or as potent as fearing one's stepfather, building into an intimate and relatable depiction of growing up with an almost universal awareness of the fabric of memories.

Given the unconventional schedule and the inherent scope of the project, Linklater preserves the illusion of realism in different ways with Boyhood. His most successful method comes in not lingering on one period of time for longer than needed, quickly and organically weaving together the director's existential conversations with delicate, unobtrusive camerawork that follows memorable scenes in Mason's life: the release of a popular book and a conversation about real-world magic; the time his father offered birth-control advice at a bowling alley; the time he lost the girl. What results is a film that's nearly double the length of the director's other musings on life that passes by just as briskly, where all the experiences funnel into an adult vessel at the end who's capable of embracing the resulting thoughts, sorrows, and aspirations. Boyhood gives those watching this rare fly-on-the-wall view of exactly what shapes a person into who they'll ultimately become, and Linklater's ambitious and intimate project ensures that Mason's end result -- flaws and all -- makes sense every step of the way.

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