(166 minutes, Rated R)
So the summer extravaganza of 2014 is halfway over; as the bigger blockbusters came and went, I am starting to become extremely excited for Fall/Winter releases, like Foxcatcher: a picture I originally believed to be a contender for my favorite of 2014. However, I just had the pleasure of seeing my favorite flick of this year. While it is extremely early to declare this, I do not think another product will match the emotional magnitude that was felt during my viewing of Boyhood.
For those who do not know, Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s experiment that was shot over twelve years: each summer the cast and crew came together to film another piece of this complex puzzle. So basically, Boyhood follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up in real time, experiencing the trials and tribulations of being a child, teenager and adult. The resulting 166-minute product is something that has never been seen or done before: and the audience, most likely, just saw a part of cinema history because it is very unlikely that this format will be emulated again.
But most importantly, Boyhood delivers an emotionally riveting journey that will have any person expressing empathy towards the main protagonist: the storyline’s ‘life goes on’ mentality will make Mason’s life feel all too real. If you somehow did not feel anything for Mason and his struggles then you should be deemed an unemotional sociopath. And somehow Boyhood seems to do all of this, while throwing out all the basic rules of filmmaking: like a conventional three act structure and the need to be hyper-realistic.
And even when the story veers into melodramatic territories, it quickly subverts expectations by simply fast forwarding the timeline. Again, this all goes back to the idea that ‘life goes on;’ so when a so-called major event happens, Boyhood does not linger on the problem. Conventional movies tend to use an event, like a divorce, as a jumping point: over-dramatizing that singular event to the point that the entire plot revolves around it.
Even the ‘based on a true story’ crap, uses a singular occurrence and makes it exciting by putting it in a hyper-realized state: which is completely understandable because most of the time ‘real life’ is boring. For instance, American Hustle uses the idea of one particular con job, ABSCAM, as a jumping-off point: even if, at that time, there were millions of other events going on.
In this case, Linklater’s flick seems to go through time briefly touching upon certain events: yet, all these brief events lead to a very dense ‘bigger picture.’ The overall plot is more than the idea of divorce or how alcoholism can destroy a family: it truly shows the multi-dimensional aspects of childhood because Mason’s life is more complicated than a particular event. The easiest way to describe the essence of this ‘life goes on’ notion is to briefly touch upon a particular scene with Patricia Arquette’s character. In her final scene, Mason is preparing to leave for college and his mother bursts into tears. Instead of saying the stereotypical ‘I am going to miss you,’ she blurts ‘is that it:’ basically she is saying is that it to life. She grew up, raised children and now she is in her 50s with a steady job; but is this really it to her life, and if so, she thought there was more.
And that perfectly encapsulates the life affirming journey that Mason goes on. Perhaps he does not blatantly talk about the meaning of life, but we watch Mason (and Ellar Coltrane) grow up before our eyes, only for him to realize that his childhood confusion is the equivalent to how every adult feels: lost and expecting more. Essentially this truly shows the emotional weight of Boyhood; a seemingly little film that thematically has a grander scale than any explosions or stunts in a $100 million blockbuster. Somehow with the limited budget and extremely long shooting time, Linklater created a realistic portrait of a child, which gives this contained story an epic feeling.
But, Boyhood works, in part, due to its wonderful and willing cast. While the idea of having a steady job for twelve years sounds wonderful, the inability to see the finished product could severely hurt an actor’s stock. For instance, I am sure Ethan Hawke would not be doing the horribly beneath him Getaway or The Purge, if this came out a few years ago. Ethan Hawke’s performance as the father is incendiary; his initial presence gives off this man-child aura that eventually evolves into a semi-reasonable adult. However, even when he is the boring adult, he steals every scene. If the man does not get an Oscar nomination then it would be a travesty.
As for Ellar Coltrane, he does a fantastic job as our protagonist, evolving into the young man that inhabits the final frames. While many people put down child actors, Ellar’s eyes made it seem that there was more to his character: personally, I do not know if this was intentional, but even at a young age there was some depth to the actor’s eyes, let alone to his performance. And while at times his delivery feels forced, which could be blamed more on the particular scene than the actor (the scene where he drinks with older kids has some questionable acting and dialogue), these moments are few and far between. Again, in regards to the overall picture, Ellar gives a fantastically layered performance, which is even more enhanced by the supporting characters.
Both his sister Samantha and mother, who are respectively played by Lorelei Linklater and Patricia Arquette, are individually given their time to shine during the extensive 166 minute runtime. It was fun watching all of these characters grow, but it was even more fun watching these actors evolve: Lorelei Linklater, in particular, is like Ethan Hawke because she steals almost every scene. From her initial introduction, awkwardly singing Britney Spears’ ‘Oops I Did It Again,’ to her nonchalant coolness while at college, I could have watched a three hour picture entirely about Samantha.
But it is important to point out that these characters are the brainchild of Linklater. On top of that, all of this could have failed if it was not cohesively placed together by this auteur. The way he seamlessly transitions from year to year is almost perfect in its execution: also, it was particularly refreshing to watch something that does not hold your hand. In fact, certain moments I had to judge if the story progressed a year. It just feels refreshing that from direction to execution, Boyhood respects the audience’s intelligence.
Furthermore, as the story progresses, it becomes abundantly clear that this is a Linklater product. Between visual indicators or simply the beautifully detailed subtleties, which are rarely seen in mainstream cinema, one can clearly tell that this was a passion project from the famous auteur who made Dazed and Confused and Scanner Darkly.
And while I believe that the film is overlong by five minutes—something that is damn good in retrospect of its 166 minute runtime—the overall product reflects near flawless storytelling. Even the subtle music and technological details of certain scenes, which all show the intended time period, do not throw the so-called yearly gimmick in the viewer’s face. All in all, Linklater perfectly balances Boyhood, so much so, that almost every section feels vital to the over-arching story: something that indicates good writing. For instance, events like 2008s presidential election, feels unforced because of the father’s (Ethan Hawke) pre-existing liberal views.
With that said, when people talk about how multi-layered other films are, they all will pale in comparison to Boyhood. While saying this feels extremely cliché, the flick, at least for me, was transformative. Now, this may have readers collectively rolling their eyes: especially those who have never been emotionally moved by cinema. Yet, it is the only movie, in the last decade, where the credits finished, the lights came on and I was still glued to my seat. It connected to me on almost every level, to the point that it becomes extremely hard to explain the experience.
So I often quote Almost Famous because that picture always felt like a love letter to music, movies and literature. And Fairuza Balk’s character talks about loving a ‘simple little sheet music so much that you can barely breath.’ While I terribly paraphrased that quote, it perfectly encapsulates why I love Boyhood and cinema in general. It is the type of product that I will be unable to forget now or one hundred years from now: it will have you heart broken in one scene, yet laughing in the next.
And a lot of the praise has to be given to the writer/director Richard Linklater and the wonderful cast that stuck with him for over 12 years. It is just a shame that this is being released in the middle of July and is currently only in three theaters. It is a must see for those who appreciate film history, but it also happens to be one of the greatest movies to come out, at least for me, in the last twenty years.