Review: Boyhood

    Boyhood (2014) Dir. Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater has always been a director concerned with words; dialogue fills the spaces in his films, whether it be casual conversation or inane chattering. It's all indicative of an auteur who seems to forever be trying to bridge the gap between his characters. He does this so successfully - and so organically - in Boyhood that the family dynamic is not only wholly convincing, but it broaches the distance between the audience and the characters onscreen. Linklater does this, in part, by adopting a far more naturalistic approach to dialogue, shedding most of the abstract, dreamy philosophizing of his previous films. It seems, judging by the wide response to the movie, that in spite of age or geographical difference from noughties Texas, many have found some gem of bittersweet familiarity in this growing-up tale.

In some way linked to his passion for loquaciousness, Linklater is also fascinated with cinematic time - from the real-time experimentation of Before Sunset to the compartmentalized 24-hour framework of Dazed and Confused. It seems easy to assume that the grand ambitions of Boyhood are the next logical step for Linklater - a dozen years in the making, with a young boy, Ellar Coltrane, filmed periodically from the ages of 6 to 18.  Ellar’s film incarnation is called Mason, though Linklater claims to have adjusted his writing to the innumerable and unknowable ways in which Ellar would grow, adjust, and change over the years. His older sister Samantha is played by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, and his divorced parents are Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, each year visibly aging along with their children. Arquette’s Olivia is a beleaguered single mother, weighed down by poor relationship choices but constantly striving to better herself; Hawke is a part-time dad, but he is loving and supportive, picking up the kids for the weekend in his impractical black GTO. His eventual decision to trade the muscle car in for a minivan is an inkling of his (very) slow march into fatherly maturity. 

And so Mason grows up, incrementally, over the 164-minute running time. The film tumbles through Mason’s years as a cherub-faced child to a gangly, floppy-haired teenager, and eventually to a self-aware high school senior with artistic pretensions. The film is a marvel of editing, as it is almost imperceptible; there are no dissolves or fade-outs, no onscreen cues or dates to inform of the passage of time. We notice someone’s haircut has changed, they’ve sprouted up a few inches; that they look awkward in their own bodies. The political and musical landscape informs us - from pint-sized, precocious Samantha wailing Oops I Did it Again to the use of obnoxious but then-ubiquitous middle school anthem Soulja Boy. Mason's family, naturally, are a bunch of Austin-type liberals living in an overwhelmingly red state. 

The film's structure sprawls loosely; generously. But it isn't, ultimately, the director's masterful manipulation of time that makes Boyhood so remarkable. Partially through such committed performances from his actors, he entrenches the audience in the family, making us feel the vagaries and losses and achievements as if they were our own - and hell, there's a good likelihood we may have shared them. The moment where a slightly drunk Mason, still in his graduation cap and gown, drags his buddy into the ambush of a family party, felt as familiar as my own hand. It seems many viewers have felt this odd pang of personal experience as they watch. That's part of the beauty of Linklater's creation. However specific it is to suburban Texas, with Dad stealing 2008 McCain-Palin signs off people's yards, it is somehow also entirely universal. 

Nothing terrible happens to Mason and Samantha, though they go through plenty of domestic turbulence and are often uprooted; as with the majority of us, they escape childhood mostly unscathed. Mason grows into a sensitive, curious young man and as the film closes, we feel the sense of life unfurling ahead of him - we want to see what he does next, and how he gets along in the world. The tremendous intimacy of Boyhood forces us to feel almost as if we'd lost a friend by the film's conclusion - or, as with Mason's stricken mother, there is the sense of an empty nest. Patricia Arquette's final scene in the film, saying goodbye to Mason before he leaves for college, is funny and tender; it seems to her son that she's overreacting, but the audience here intuits more than the boy does. For that reason, it is heartbreaking. 

Boyhood  is a long dream, reveling in the smell of cut grass and childhood summers spent rolling around on the backyard trampoline. Punctuated by the distant tremors of adulthood, buoyed up by our loved ones, unafraid of the growing pains, it allows us to get the dirt under our fingernails. The passage of time is something all at once bright, terrifying, and unyielding. Linklater - and Mason - face it with optimism. With all its boundless warmth and sensitivity, Boyhood captures life in a way that is quietly revolutionary. It feels like something that will endure. 


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