Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 2 hours 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R for Language including Sexual References, and for Teen Drug and Alcohol Use
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke
Mountains of hype can make a difference on a film. As much as I try to steer clear from early critical consensus on new movies, it’s very hard in the age of social media to avoid what people are saying at film festival premieres. BOYHOOD received an insane amount of praise during Sundance. Since its limited release began a few weeks ago, many critics have been calling for a possible Best Picture nomination. Richard Linklater’s epic-length project is extremely ambitious, but ambition doesn’t necessarily mean something is automatically good. Linklater has taken on interesting ideas in the past and didn’t stick the landing (e.g. FAST FOOD NATION and more so with A SCANNER DARKLY). BOYHOOD is worth celebrating and there hasn’t ever been anything like it in the history of cinema, but it’s far from perfect.
Mason is an imaginative six-year-old living with his single mother and his bratty sister. After his mother starts attending college to make a better life for her family, Mason’s father returns into his life but only on every other weekend. The rest of the film is Mason growing up and experiencing different things over the years. We follow him from ages six to eighteen, while also viewing how much life changes for everyone around him. That’s the episodic plot and it feels like an authentic slice of life. That phrase is used quite often (I’m guilty of throwing in plenty of reviews), but it’s never felt more real than here and there’s a solid foundation to back that up…
BOYHOOD was shot over twelve years. Linklater was provided an annual budget from IFC Films and then shot with the same cast for a few weeks every year for over a decade. This means that we see these actors, not just characters literally grow over time. The script was never fully completed in the process either, but rather improvised around where the cast members’ were at that point in their lives. It’s the most exciting experimental filmmaking that I’ve ever heard about and a behind-the-scenes documentary about the making-of might prove to be even more interesting than the resulting movie. The passage of time is very apparent and will jog memories of many audience members, especially millennials and the current generation. Pop culture references (e.g. the bratty sister singing a Britney Spears tune or a brief visit to a midnight release party of HARRY POTTER & THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE) and a soundtrack that contains a number of songs popular during the various times of filming only brought back more of the nostalgia I had brewing in my system.
As far as the acting is concerned, Ellar Coltrane is the main star as the ever-maturing Mason and starts off shaky. His acting skills dramatically improve as he grows up alongside his character. The same can be said of Lorelei Linklater. She’s annoying as some kids are, but does find sustainable ground later on. This is especially true in one of the more emotionally upsetting periods of the film involving their mother’s attraction to an abusive alcoholic scumbag. Patricia Arquette hasn’t been in anything too notable for the past decade, but is given a meaty role as Olivia, Mason’s mother. Her cycle of lousy taste in men is one of the stronger threads in the film. Ethan Hawke is great as Mason’s father (a.k.a. Mason Sr.) and fleshes out his weekend father figure that gradually matures as well. BOYHOOD can be seen as not the story of Mason (though he’s the main focus), but the story of the three family members around him.
The lack of a plot is really just the summary of one boy’s journey of growing up. Things randomly happen in life and Mason remarks that it’s always “right now.” Time passes us by every second and it’s what we do with those moments and how we choose to remember everything that matters. Mason goes through the motions that everyone goes through. He has teenage drama in high school, gets a low-wage job, deals with some difficult home situations, and finds young love/heartbreak. This is a movie that you really can’t spoil even if you tried, because you know how it ends already. He grows up. We all did at one point or are in the process of doing so. The big issue that comes with this free-for-all style is that the nearly three-hour-long running time comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome. It never fully goes into BLUE IS THE WARMEST COLOR areas (where focus goes to more mundane details), but I found myself thinking that certain scenes could have been cut to make a tighter film.
The acting from the young Coltrane and Linklater in the beginning was a little off. The running time is also too long. However, there’s plenty to be praised in BOYHOOD. Mason remarks near the end of the film that instead of seizing the day, time seems to do the opposite. The moment seizes us. That’s a wonderful way of putting life in general. BOYHOOD takes a fairly ordinary chunk of somebody’s life and transforms it into a special creation. Mason is fictional as are all the characters around him, but there are people who have grown up in the same situations that he does in the film. We all have our own stories to tell. If there’s any stand-out accomplishment I can say about BOYHOOD that makes it stand out from the pack of movies in cinema history, it’s that most viewers will be looking back at everything they’ve accomplished, felt, and gone through in their lives in careful detail, while appreciating every joyous second they’ve lived. If that’s the case, then my criticisms don’t have much of a place in the bigger picture of things.