Boyhood (2014); directed by Richard Linklater

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I was about to start off by saying “Movies like Boyhood…” and stopped myself. Because there are no other movies like Boyhood. There are other films about a boy coming of age, there are other films about a child becoming a man, there are other films about domestic life and problems. About adolescence.

But none do what Boyhood has done.

The closest parallel is Michael Apted’s Up series, but that’s a documentary. Doing a similar thing with a group of actors and actual real-life children playing parts has never been done. The miracle is that it works so well. The miracle also is that the film is a deeply profound experience, a musing on the nature of time, and “ain’t it funny how time slips away,” and how there is no ultimate meaning except for “the moment.” That’s the key, isn’t it. The key to how to live a good life. Embrace the moment. Easier said than done, but Boyhood makes you actually feel that in a very real and visceral way.

An audacious project, carried out basically in secret over a 12-year period, Boyhood was shot in distinct small chunks over the course of those 12 years, so that we actually see the little boy in the poster grow into an 18-year-old kid. The cast remains the same: Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the parents, and Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as their children. Linklater does not make a gimmick of the concept. It unfolds as naturally as, well, life. He does not give us year-markers as delineators, he does not explain that it is now a year later, we just get it because the kids’ hair is different, their heights are different, the stories on the news tell us where we are in time, the parents’ are different, older.

Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason (Ethan Hawke) are divorced when the film starts. They have two young children, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). Olivia has full custody, basically because Mason Sr. is irresponsible and has decided to move to Alaska to “clear his head” and work on a boat and write some music. He roars into town occasionally, driving a black GTO (a hat-tip to Two-Lane Blacktop, one of Linklater’s favorite films), and taking the kids out for bowling and sleepovers. Boyhood is not conventional in its presentation (obviously) and not conventional in other important ways, in the same way that the Before Sunrise movies both acknowledges the rom-com tropes and then discards them, allowing the characters space to maneuver, to surprise us and each other. It is only when you see something like Boyhood that you realize how hemmed-in most characters are in other films, by the demands of the plot, by cliches, by assumptions being made about them.

Nothing huge or earth-shattering happens, but one of the ways that that works is that you realize/remember how intense life is on an everyday basis, especially for children, but for adults too. Mason Sr. says to his 18-year-old son at one point, “We’re all just winging it, man,” and that’s pretty much the size of it. Nobody knows what they’re doing. Everyone is just doing the best they can.

Life moves along in Boyhood. The years pass. Olivia and the kids move a lot, which means that Mason Sr. has to drive hundreds of miles sometimes to spend every other weekend with his kids. Olivia marries two more times, both times to guys who seem responsible on the surface, but who end up having drinking problems (in one case, a severe drinking problem). She says, self-deprecatingly at one point to her now-teenage son, “Obviously I enjoy making poor lifestyle choices.” Olivia is doing the best she can, and has gone back to school to get her Master’s, and ends up being a professor of psychology, beloved by her students, and influential in her community. It’s not a surprise that this occurs. She obviously keeps her nose to the grindstone, and works her ass off. We watch this happen, in distinct spurts, over the years.

Mason Sr. has his own journey to go on. He’s an attentive dad, he talks about the tough stuff (trying to engage his mortified teenage daughter in a conversation about safe sex, should she be interested in trying sex at some point), and we slowly see him “get his shit together,” although it’s not clear how good that is for him. He marries again, too.

The kids accept the changes in their parents’ lives, but there are also deeper unspoken levels of questioning going on, something that Linklater excels in. He doesn’t make too fine a point of it, he doesn’t underline themes, but the questions reverberate off the screen. What does it mean to be responsible? What does it mean to do your best? Are there other alternatives? Olivia seems pretty overwhelmed throughout, but she keeps trucking along, like any mother you’ve ever met, and she has her off moments, but in general, she keeps things moving, keeps it together. Early in the film, a guy she is dating clearly is giving her a hard time for “using” her kids as an excuse. She can’t just go out at a moment’s notice, she can’t find a babysitter last minute, and he is pissed off about it. She screams, “I was somebody’s daughter and then I was somebody’s fucking mother!!” There was no gap, no time for herself. A simplistic film would have made her comment seem villainous, as though the resentment of her role was a point against her. Linklater doesn’t work on the points system. That comment comes out of an exhausted and upset moment, and she loves her kids, but what she says is ALSO true.

Life is not either/or. There are very few ACTUAL “villains” in real life. The pleasure in Boyhood, and it takes some getting used to, is that nobody here is bad. Even a teacher giving Mason Jr. a hard time for slacking off in photography class is trying to get Mason Jr. to be better at his art. Be artistic but ALSO be responsible: both qualities will serve you well. It’s a great little scene.

The acting is unlike other acting in other films. It has a documentary reality, a sense that we are “visiting” these people over the years, dropping by periodically to see how they are doing. Sometimes they are doing well. Scenes unfold lazily, like a conversation between Mason Sr. and Mason Jr. when they’re on a camping trip. There’s no “point” to the scene, it’s a conversation between father and son that unfolds naturally, beautifully. They talk about Star Wars. They talk about school. They talk about life. They talk about everything. These are the conversations that make up the majority of most people’s lives, and yet it is so rarely portrayed onscreen!

The film is not lacking in drama. In one tense sequence, Olivia engineers a separation from her now-violent husband, and Arquette is absolutely heart-breaking and ferocious in her need to protect her children. But the real drama comes from the small, the everyday, the moments that make up the majority of our lives. Talking seriously with someone you have a crush on when you’re 15. How profound it is, how scary, how fun, how disorienting. The awkwardness between teenage siblings, how of course you love each other, but yuk, stay away from me. The growing awareness that you have a self, a self that is distinct from others, a self that is distinct from your parents, from other people, that you are You. And what do you do with that knowledge?

If you’re a teenager, sometimes it means dyeing your hair or cutting your hair off or dressing distinctly. These are not just surface things, they are a way to assert your individuality. Boyhood respects the experience of teenagers in a way that seems almost damn near revelatory, in today’s overly-sexualized and hostile atmosphere. Mason Jr. dates a girl, and they have serious conversations about their dreams, and about technology (he deletes his Facebook page, and they have a big talk about it), and about what they want to do with their lives. They also get stoned and have sex, because they’re 16 years old and that’s what goes on. It’s ALL true. She’s not leered at like some hottie cheerleader prize. She’s her own person. This is high school for most people. This is life and adolescence. It’s deeply serious to those who are living it.

There are scenes that left me wrung dry, there are scenes that are hilarious. There was one scene, a nighttime talk between Mason Jr. – age 8 or 9 – and his father – about “magic” – that left the audience HOWLING with laughter, laughter that kept going, on and on, into the next scene.

In that laughter I didn’t just hear how funny the exchange was. I heard a collective RELEASE. A sense of almost awed recognition that yes, yes, YES, life is like this!!, talking with an 8-year-old is like this, and how we NEED to see such things on-screen, how we YEARN for our lives to be reflected up there with more subtlety and sensitivity! It was truly cathartic.

One of the best films I’ve seen all year.

There are no comparisons. Boyhood is sui generis.

And if possible, see it with a crowd.

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16 Responses to Boyhood (2014); directed by Richard Linklater

  1. Helena says:

    Such a lovely review, Sheila – and such a lot to talk about.

    //There was one scene, a nighttime talk between Mason Jr. – age 8 or 9 – and his father – about “magic” – that left the audience HOWLING with laughter, //

    This scene was so funny and sweet, and the dad handles it so beautifully. Though it was one of the first scenes with the sister dancing in the bedroom and Ellar just writhing and howling as if he’s being tortured that had me screaming with laughter. Been there, seen that.

    I loved things the Harry Potter bookbuying frenzy scene – kids getting so into these things and participating in this big event. Such a big deal for them. Magic, indeed.

    I noticed towards the end of the film as Ellar grows older how much men in particular start telling him off, telling him how to be a man, do this, do that, get him to ‘shape up.’ God, how exhausting this must be – do all boys have to go through this? Also, in a couple of scenes Ellar is ‘eyed up’ by older men and women – there’s a fascination with the beautiful young that isn’t just sexual, though it is highly sexual … it can spark off envy, desire, lots of pained feelings from one’s own youth.

    One of the scariest scenes – Mom dragging the kids out of the abusive husband’s house, and having to leave the other two kids behind. I thought about them for the rest of the film.

    The film withholds judgement – ‘bad’ decisions don’t bring disaster, and ‘good’ decisions can work out badly. We’re not being forced by Linklater to pigeonhole his characters, particularly the parents, but just see them work through their own decisions – that’s a great coup. Dad’s ‘settling down’ – some of the tenderest scenes were with the new wife, baby and grandparents. And I thought it was a great touch how Dad and Mom never quite, really, come to terms. No happy resolution there.

    But, you know, it kind of has been done before, in a slightly different way.

    • sheila says:

      Oh my gosh, Mason Jr. waking up to his sister doing a Britney Spears imitation – in her little pajamas – it was so so funny. That was definitely my brother’s experience growing up in a house full of girls. HILARIOUS.

      That’s one of the reasons why it was great to see it in a packed house (and it’s only playing in one – ONE – theatre in all of Manhattan at the moment. So every show is sold out. It’s insane.) The laughter that exploded when we saw that little girl singing that song – it was not just that it was funny – it was totally “Oh my God, I have lIVED that” kind of laughter. Great!!

      And yes, it really gets that strange in-between time – when you’re still a kid – but sex is starting to come into the picture – and the lines are blurred – and it can be confusing. Like it was so obvious that the manager of the restaurant had a tiny crush on Mason Jr. But it didn’t get inappropriate – I wasn’t skeeved out by it – he was harmless, he liked the kid, he took on a mentoring role, and he also had a little crush – and showing up at the graduation party? SO FUNNY. “I know I don’t know Mason as well as you all …” Like, buddy, come on!

      And that one scene where all the boys sit in the construction site and that one kid is throwing around the words “fag” and “pussy” – and the humor of the scene – but also the slight resistance to participating in that type of dynamic – I mean, you could SEE it happening. Nobody said, “Hey, don’t use those words” because, duh, they’re 13 years old – but both boys who were not “going along with it” tried to defend themselves against that entire attitude.

      My nephew is 15 years old and I’m about to see him – our family goes on vacation every year together – and it’s happening this Saturday – and this film made me think of him SO MUCH. His life is FULL and three-dimensional – with projects and interests and thoughts and feelings – and a good group of friends – he’s both sensitive and smart – he’s finding his way – he and his friends make zombie movies on the weekends – and he is not a freakin’ cliche.

      I mean, those boys in Boyhood felt so real to me – and NOT just the jerks – but the sweet ones, his friends, the other boy in that household – the one riding on his bike waving goodbye … Boys are given so little room in the culture – or, let’s say – the portrayal of them in film/TV leaves much to be desired. There’s a lot of hemming-in going on. The “real man” thing – just as devastating as the “here’s what a real woman” should be like – to the young people trying to make their own way.

      // Mom dragging the kids out of the abusive husband’s house, and having to leave the other two kids behind. I thought about them for the rest of the film. //

      Oh my God, me too. Terrifying and horrible. Arquette, screaming, ‘don’t TOUCH MY CHILDREN!!!” I’ve always had a girl-crush on her, for YEARS – from way back when – and love her overlapped front tooth – love her acting, her eyes, her sense of reality, her whole career really. It has a lot of integrity.

      Also I loved the whole Texas environment, which is obviously Linklater’s landscape. The audience I saw it with laughed at the Bible given to Mason as a gift – and I think it’s put in there to be funny – but not just that. The grandmother is a sweet woman – a God-fearing Christian woman – whose daughter is marrying a semi-deadbeat kind of dude, with two children from a former marriage – and this woman embraces those kids wholeheartedly. Yes, the Bible was over the top – but everyone has different ways of showing love. To her, it was a moment of generosity. Very sweet. And the grandfather teaching the kid to shoot a shotgun – the liberal Northeast audience I saw it with tittered in a way I found patronizing – but I thought that was a beautiful scene. I love that grandfather. Those were two damn nice people who were accepting children that were not their own AS their own. It’s not either/or. It’s not pigeon-holing as you say – these are Linklater’s people, his family, his childhood, his home state – this is who he is.

  2. sheila says:

    DBW – if you end up reading this: you really must see this film. I mean, I insist. You of all people need to see it. :)

  3. Helena says:

    //Also I loved the whole Texas environment, which is obviously Linklater’s landscape.//

    At one point late on in the film, I turned round to the friend I was with and just blurted ‘Texas is awesome – I must go there now’

    //That was definitely my brother’s experience growing up in a house full of girls. HILARIOUS. //

    My nephew’s life too – two sisters!

    I’d love to go with my sister who has three kids, oldest boy about Ellar’s age at the end of the film, she’s divorced, etc – what would she make of it? Her kids have lived through the same time frame more or less as the kids in the film.

    //Like it was so obvious that the manager of the restaurant had a tiny crush on Mason Jr.//

    It was, but he was sweet – wanted to be a mentor, as you say. And his speech – hilarious. But real.

    The bible and shotgun – yes, that created the same response in this London audience. But the grandparents were sweet and sincere characters – they love that song! – and Ellar’s reactions to them are so gracious.

    //both boys who were not “going along with it” tried to defend themselves against that entire attitude. //

    Yes, loved that scene – the two younger ones were just instinctively fighting against it, knew it wasn’t who they were, can smell a jerk a mile off, even age 13. Bless them.

    • sheila says:

      Yes – the fact that they listened with these beaming faces to that song! I was crying just looking at them. Sweet people.

      Like Ethan Hawke says late in the film – “Everyone’s just winging it …”

      Those grandparents, too – and they were doing their best and winging it with these new circumstances and they were sweet and inclusive. And yes, loved that Mason Jr. was not eye-rolling the Bible, at least not when it was given to him. He was polite. Because he was well-raised. LATER he might eye-roll, but he could tell how nice she was being, and he was sweet to her about it.

      The movie is kind towards its characters. I wish that wasn’t so rare!

  4. sheila says:

    Also loved how shocked the kids were that mom was getting an apartment and she could no longer store all their stuff.

    “But … where will I do laundry?” says daughter, truly upset.

    Mom: “I don’t know – you’ll fall on your feet – and as you fall, maybe you will find some … quarters … to put in a washing machine …”

    Another HUGE roar of recognition from the audience.

  5. miker says:

    Linklater is such a quietly brilliant guy who delivers these incredible gems again and again. I already knew the movie was going to be special, but this review adds considerable intensity to my already sky-high anticipation. There is no other reviewer whose opinion I enjoy and value equal to yours – thanks for all the great work you do.

  6. sheila says:

    Miker – Thanks! Yeah, definitely check it out – keep your eyes peeled, it’s only in very limited release right now.

  7. Todd Restler says:

    Wow, awesome job Sheila! I can’t wait to see this. Amazing that he could pull off a project like this in secret, and that he not only got it made, but it sounds like a masterpiece. What a risk as a filmmaker, and what a tremendous commitment from the cast. I love the Before Trilogy, and Dazed and Confused is an all time favorite, but this looks like Linklater’s “Kane.”

    I’ll have to see it before commenting on it more but your write up is making me drool.

  8. Maureen says:

    Thanks for this review, Sheila! I checked their website, and this will be coming to my city to a small theater on August 15th. I can’t wait!

  9. alli says:

    Patricia Arquette is so danged awesome. Gotta find this somewhere.

    • sheila says:

      She really is. And imagine this project – filmed over 12 years – as she did all that other stuff in her life – just amazing: dropping in on this character, periodically, in the middle of all her other work.

      She’s wonderful.

  10. Patty says:

    Thank you for pointing out what few people have noticed about this movie but that struck me as amazing right off the bat: NOBODY is villified. The single mom, the semi-absent dad, the gun-toting grandparents, the hardass boss–they all love Mason in their own ways and they are too complex to be “good” or “bad” figures in this amazing movie about growing up. I loved it. So many other remarkable aspects of this film–you are right–nothing else like it!

  11. Catarina says:

    Hi, recently I discovered your article about the best actress oscar nominees in2011 on Fandor and I loved your analyzes. Rarely find someone who makes deep analysis of performances, they are usually superfluous. I want ask if you could make your ranking of the nominees of the category of best actress and best supporting actress in 2013, 2014 and 2015. Or you can just say the one you thought that should have won. And if it’s not asking too much, a brief analysis on each nomination or just about the one you thought that should have won.

    Sorry if I’m bothering you and for my grammatical errors (english is not my first language).

    Thank you.

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