Snowpiercer.” Now, Richard Linklater’s latest film arrives to make me into a liar.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a masterpiece. Boyhood took twelve years to film, on and off, because Linklater’s vision was to cast a real six year-old boy in the lead and create a narrative film that followed that same child’s development from first grade through high school. (Linklater cast his own eight year-old daughter as the boy’s sister.) The resulting film is one of the god-damnedest things you will ever see.
Obviously one of the key attractions in Boyhood, as in Michael Apted’s British documentary series 7UP, is to watch kids age and mature in front of our eyes, all in the space of three hours. Yet this is not a stunt or gimmick film at all. Linklater spares us the usual Hollywood signifiers of the passage of time (score cues, funny dissolves) and lets the changes happen organically—as in “real life,” we often don’t actually notice things while they’re changing, we only notice the subtle ways they have changed.
The Plot In Brief: Mason (the astounding Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are being raised by single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) returns after a long absence to reestablish contact with his children. Time passes. Jobs change, new people move into and out of the family’s life. Time passes. The children face many of the milestones of growing up: school, experimenting with drugs and alcohol, bullies, friendships, and part-time jobs. Time passes. Along the way, the family moves to various places in Texas for various reasons; time passes. Mason graduates from high school and begins college and an uncertain future.
As a protagonist, young Mason is more acted upon than acting, and I think that is part of Linklater’s point. How many of us at six or twelve or even 18 were able to create our own destinies? Some of the strongest points the movie makes are about the way children are marginalized, even by those with their best interests at heart; Linklater surrounds his protagonist with the nonstop barrage of senseless blather that adults often use in place of real communication. Indeed, one of the most powerful scenes early in the movie is when Mason Sr. insists to his children that he does not want to be the stereotypical “weekend Dad”—he encourages his children to really talk to him, and promises to genuinely listen to them. We see the effects of his effort as the kids develop through the course of the film.
For a time, I found young Mason’s passivity unnerving, but as the film progressed, I realized that this was either Linklater’s master plan (to place a small, still person at the center of this swirling vortex of life) or that was simply the young actor’s personality shining through the part. Mason becomes more and more endearing, in a tousled, slacker way, as the film progresses, and I felt assured at the end that this character was going to be alright.
Art is often defined by what the artist chooses to leaves out. At our house, we often joke about how Adam Sandler’s unwatchable Just Go With It wittingly leaves out the climax of the film—instead, one character just sort of describes a bunch of stuff that happens off-camera. In Boyhood, Linklater proves himself to be a master of the ellipses; the deliberate omissions in the film mirror the way people slip in and out of our lives—the way change comes incrementally—the way lived moments become milestones or touchpoints only after the fact, when viewed from the perspective of the moments in between.
Again, this is largely because Linklater leaves out the usual Hollywood signifiers of emotional growth: the “this is how I’m feeling” set of dramatically-worded responses, grand gestures, and orchestral pushes that lead audiences, beat by beat, through the arc of the film. In their absence, we are expected to do most of the heavy lifting and interpret the emotional meaning of what is on the screen. The technique doesn’t merely encourage our emotional investment in the characters, it demands it; we’re rewarded by the depth of feeling the movie creates.
Similarly, the passage of time is handled in a subtle way. I give Linklater so much credit for treating us as observant, intelligent beings. Time clues range from the obvious (the two kids looking older) to smaller, more esoteric, mostly media-driven bits in the background: a snippet of news on the television, a Harry Potter book release party, a Lady Gaga music video glimpsed on a cellphone. It is never as obnoxious as the on-the-nose parade of popular music chart toppers and obvious cinematic time signifiers in more conventional films like Forrest Gump.
Roger Ebert once described the cinema as “a machine that generates empathy.” I empathized with every character in Boyhood, even the ostensibly awful ones, because Linklater’s incisive view of life reminds us that we are all just making it up as we go along, and although some of us are more successful than others, no one is particularly good at it at all.
After the screening, my wife joked that she liked the movie a lot more the first time she saw it… when it was called “Jake,” ran for twelve years in real time, and was shown exclusively in our own home. That’s how incessantly and incisively Boyhood returned us to our earlier parenting years. I laughed more appreciatively and cried more during Boyhood than at any other film this year. When it was over I was a wreck, but wouldn’t have traded a minute of it back in return for a less emotionally effecting and honest movie.
This has been one terrific year for the movies. This would have been a terrific year for movies if Boyhood were the only movie released all year.
There is no movie this year at this point that I'm more excited to see than Boyhood. As soon as it opens near me (in early August, as far as I can tell), I will rush as fast as I can to see it. I can't wait.ReplyDelete
Thank you for the review, JB. I find it difficult to verbalize the greatness of this film because it operates at such a core level of humanity. On the surface one might question the appeal of a 2:40 hour movie with no definitive plot, a meandering pace, and flawed characters. Yet the film is engaging and immersive because it portrays authentic, relatable situations and characters. Just as in life, the viewer is always in the moment until realizing how quickly time has passed. I have a deep respect for Linklater's vision, skill, and perseverance in creating this masterpiece.ReplyDelete
Currently Boyhood is playing in only 34 theaters -- mostly to packed crowds -- but will hopefully gain widespread viewership through its run. I sincerely hope the film connects with a mainstream audience and generates the accompanying financial rewards for its filmmakers. They've earned it.
Amazing review, JB, I'm very excited to see this now.ReplyDelete
If this gets the shaft here in Halifax like Snowpiercer has so far, I think that's grounds for relocating right? Sounds like you guys have at least one spare bedroom?
I can't seem to find a release date for Snowpiercer for the UK yet even though it was at the Edinburgh Film Festival. I am really looking forward to seeing it! One blink and you'll miss it release was The Zero Theorem, which doesn't look as good as these two but did have me very keen to see it. Did anyone manage to catch it?Delete
Just yesterday I noticed The Zero Theorem over at blu-ray.com and was like, Terry Gilliam? Christoph Waltz? I never even heard of this! I'd also be interested to hear the impressions of anyone here who happened to catch it.Delete
The Zero Theorem comes on VOD over here next monthDelete
Huh - the blu-ray is out in Canada. Holy shit, did we get something first?!Delete
I saw "Boyhood" last weekend at NYC's IFC Center (which broke all its box office records and was showing it 'round the clock in almost every theater) and shook hands with Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane as they were leaving a Q&A for the showing before mine.ReplyDelete
Linklater's a director whose movies I prefer to read about more than to watch or discuss with others. "Dazed and Confused" is the closest one of his movies has come to enthralling me, and I'm happy to report that "Boyhood" feels like an extension of the former's easy-going, casually-observational style which resonates much more here deeply because it encompasses 12 years in the lives of many characters (big and small, young and old, likable and unappealing) as opposed to one day in the life of a handful of 70's teens. This is a groundbreaking movie that's a one-of-a-kind revolutionary stand (a loud This is how to do this right! shout) which unfolds with the casualness and self-assured confidence that only a director in complete control of what he wants to tell and how to tell could achieve deep into his career.
While watching "Boyhood" I felt that Mason was a cipher and uninteresting character at the center on which this amazing cinematic masterpiece was unfolding. Then the ending hit. I won't spoil it, except to say that if you put yourself in that same situation and look back at who your friends were in that same spot of your life and see how many of them remain friends/part of your life, the impact of what "Boyhood" has achieved will hit you like a ton of bricks. It did to me, and in the days since I've seen it I've come to terms with Ellar Coltrane's portrayal of Mason being like Optimus Prime being the leader of the Autobots (G1 cartoon): he's not the best character to be the center, but given every other alternative he emerges as the only logical choice on which to focus.
My one and only complain (a nitpick basically) is that the movie's title and the eulogizing of Ellar Coltrane's performance sell short "Boyhood's" accomplishments and reduce the movie down to a couple of easily-marketable taglines ('12 years in the making,' 'see an actor grow from kid to teen before your eyes,' etc.). Why shouldn't Lorelei Linklater's pics be shown side-by-side with Ellar's? In her own non-acting, awkwardly-odd mannerisms I think Lorelei gives as good a performance as Coltrane. Ethan Hawke only shows up sporadically (because, you know, work and Linklater's other movies were calling) but he and Patricia Arquette are terrific. Shoot, just the fact Linklater trusts his audience enough not to spoon-feed them on-screen graphics or hand-guide them to musical montages (and not shying away from having political opinions and a point of view, something most commercial-prospect films trying to reach multiple quadrants avoid like the plague) are just two of the many appealing fabrics of the cinematic textures that a movie with the simplistic title of "Boyhood" sells short. Guess "Alcoholic Stepfathers from Hell" was too blunt and obvious.
"Transformers 4" may have the bigger stunts, budgets and special effects in the world but, unlike Michael Bay, Linklater doesn't feel the need to show off whose dick is bigger because he knows what kind of long term game he's playing. "Transformers 4" is playing to the cheap seats and will be a footnote in most people's memories that will be quickly forgotten (like Mason's and Samantha's stepbrothers with Prof. Welbrock). Richard Linklater is aiming for immortality, and with "Boyhood" he has achieved by seemingly trying not to do that and being coy/casual about it (not true but that's how unhurried and unassuming it comes across). Years from now will still be talking about this film, fondly remembering it and looking at it back with fondness. And that, my friends, takes skills.
So rather than respond to anything written in the review, you just post your own review? Please explain that to me.Delete
JB has his take on the movie, I reply with mine. Different strokes for different folks, but in the end we both agree, "Boyhood" rocks. :-)Delete
This will come off worse than I mean for it, so please understand I am not saying it with malicious intent. These comment threads are typically for discussion. If all you are interested in is posting your own reviews, I encourage you to start your own site. Yes, we are all happy to know what you thought of the movie; it's why we are all here. But don't come to a party and start throwing your own separate party in the corner.Delete
I think the way you describe the way time passes is a perfect way to describe it and I think it is key to the film. Not at one point did I glance at the time, even though I realised when I came out this could have ended badly if it had been slightly later, as I have a last bus to catch in order to get home! When I was watching this I couldn't help think, 'what I am watching is so wonderful, it just is wonderful' and then I would have a big smile on my face. I think your words of a 'one-of-a-kind film' is the best way to describe it. After it finished I wished I could just sit there and watch it again. Before I had time to digest it or watch the credits we were all asked to leave through the fire escape. (We learned this was because someone was sick in the doorway). I loved the way the Ethan Hawke character got them to share a real and honest relationship. I also loved the Harry Potter references (so did the audience). We all seemed to find his 15th birthday party highly amusing. I love the fact it is political and has the courage to kind of poke fun of those American stereotypes such as the Southerners saying here's a bible and a gun for your birthday. Despite that distinct American voice it is far reaching, like you suggest, not because it is trying to appeal to all the demographics but because it allows itself to be honest emotionally. More of this in films please!ReplyDelete
I've heard from so many people and read reviews that said that the film affords so many different ways to connect with it. As such, Boyhood exemplifies the definition of art that says that when it's good, it teaches us what it's like to be a human being.ReplyDelete
I'm really glad you liked it, and imp glad you caught your bus!
The imp is glad, and I am glad.ReplyDelete
Why thank you imp and thank you JB. As a dyslexic imp like creatures appear in my writing quite often. They are annoying little buggers!Delete
This sounds like a triumph from everything I've heard...this is a wonderful review, JB. I especially love your wife's statement that your personal movie "Jake" was more enjoyable! Thanks for making me want to see this EVEN more, sir.ReplyDelete
We had similar responses. To me the movie observes the close relationship between life and art: how much is Mason's coming of age, and how much is Coltrane's? The title Boyhood applies to both, as well as Mason Sr. (who matures considerably throughout), Linklater's memories of his Texas upbringing, and to people in general, as life is a continual process of growing up. I love how the film's ending is not really the end, but rather another beginning.ReplyDelete
Not sure which is more surprising: It took me this long to see Boyhood or that it was playing at a small local theatre (bless you Avalon in DC). And, that I just recently watched Snowpiercer for consideration of if I liked one movie better than the other.ReplyDelete
First off, I really enjoyed Boyhood. After watching, I felt the same entertainment fullness as I did after watching Before Sunrise. I did not feel this way after the second and third Before movies, so Boyhood filled a nice void.
The word that came to mind when watching was Epic. This is an epic telling of the human condition. And, to your point, done in a non-hollywood emotionally spoon fed way. I like it when a director gives me credit for independent use of my brain. By Epic, I mean that Linklater nailed it for the evolution of the major characters: mom, dad, stepdad, and sister. It all felt real and never forced.
I really liked Ethan Hawke in this movie. Not sure there are dads like that out there, but his frankness was refreshing. The only other time I saw a movie where I said I wanted a dad like that was Attacus in To Kill a Mocking Bird.
Really enjoyed your review and your ranking in the 2014 podcast trigged me to go looking for Boyhood was still available to watch in a theater. Thanks!
Talk about depressing. Deadline just released the box office tally to date of specialty movies that have been in the market for months, and since its debut in the summer "Boyhood" has made a grand total of $24 million.... $24 million! "Transformers 4" made that in one day! I know the movie will get nominated for Academy Awards and make more money in the long run, but really? $24 million for six months in the market? You suck, America! :'(ReplyDelete
I feel like people had a lot easier access to something like Transformers 4 than Boyhood, which I don't think was playing everywhere, which could account for why one made so much more money than the other. That being said, it probably would have been for the best if nobody went to see Transformers 4.Delete
I completely agree, to get to see Boyhood when it was released I had to drive 2 hours and into another country. (although it's now getting a wider release where i live due to awards buzz)Delete