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Not the ideal Boyhood

Richard Linklater’s 12-year slice of life is an admirable film, but he’s done better

By Philip Martin

This article was originally published August 15, 2014 at 2:04 a.m. Updated August 15, 2014 at 2:04 a.m.


Before: Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is a precocious 6-year-old Texan at the beginning of Richard Linklater’s experimental drama Boyhood, which was filmed over the course of 12 years.

After: By the end of Boyhood, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is an artistically inclined young man looking to make his way in the wider world.


88 Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella

Director: Richard Linklater

Rating: R, for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use

Running time: 165 minutes

Richard Linklater's Boyhood is probably the year's best-reviewed film, and it will very likely make it onto many critics' end-of-the-year Top 10 lists. It might even make it onto mine.

Yet I am not quite as enthusiastic about the movie as most of my colleagues, which is odd considering how wild I've gone for certain Linklater movies. His Waking Life is a touchstone film for me, and I've appreciated every movie he has made since his first, 1991's Slacker. He's one of my favorite filmmakers.

That said, I only liked Boyhood. It is a long and meandering film that attempts and often achieves the impressionistic feel of remembered life -- it is fiction imitating personal nostalgia. Famously, it was filmed over 12 years, allowing all the actors (especially those who began the project as adults) to age in real time. It tells a rather quotidian but affecting story in a quietly empathetic way. It's an honorable and obviously artistically successful project, my personal quibbles notwithstanding.

However, I think Linklater has better charted the arc of human life in his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) which parachutes into the evolving relationship of Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) every nine years or so. The Before movies, which play out in something like real time, might be the flip side of Boyhood's crawl through male adolescence (it's easy to see how Linklater could have made three or four movies from this project) but it's neither as striking nor focused as the Before movies. And that's precisely the point.

I don't think it captures the emotional sense of what it feels like to be a child -- or, more precisely, to remember a childhood -- as well as Terence Malick's (in some quarters maligned) The Tree of Life. For me, it's a little too explicit and literal. And while I recognize that Linklater's failure is relative and subjective, I couldn't help thinking of Boyhood as a movie on the same order of Michael Apted's Up series or as an experimental hybrid that functions as much as a documentary as a feature film. In any case, I find Boyhood more interesting to think about than actually watch.

On the other hand, there are plenty of virtues. As it turns out, Ellar Coltrane, the young actor who, as the character Mason, grows from age 6 to 18, seems a natural screen presence, charismatic and engaging even in stillness. The episodes that unfold on-screen, charting the ebb and flow of the relationship of Mason's estranged parents (Hawke, again, and Patricia Arquette) are understated and low-key, allowing each of the actors (especially Hawke) the opportunity to do subtle, unhurried work. As the adults drift and attach themselves, the kids -- Mason and his older sister Samantha (the director's daughter Lorelei Linklater) are tugged along in their wake.

And so we're treated to a kid's-eye view of striving 21st-century suburbanism, where downward slipping is as likely as upward mobility. At times, Linklater's Texas reminded me of John Cheever's New England precincts or Rabbit Angstrom's Mount Judge, with all the conventional civil hypocrisies. Aside from one moment of almost absurdist horror (no spoiler, but it involves domestic violence) which has a disconcerting unreality to it, the way such incidents often do in real life, not much happens besides sex and alcohol and period details (deftly underlined by an on-the-nose soundtrack).

It's not exactly a complaint to say that Boyhood is practically plotless -- it's a movie about process rather than attainment -- but I'm not sure it earns its Transformers-like length. Mason hits all the signifying adolescent moments, but as the movie ends he's still callow and unformed. (Maybe in another 12 years we'll have Extended Adolescence.) He seems like a nice kid and all, but he's hardly the most interesting character in his own movie.

That honor would have to go to his father, Mason Sr., who does the real growing up here. Mason starts out as an over-compensating divorced dad and matures into an actual role model. Hawke, who at times has been my least favorite part of a Linklater movie, has never been better than he is here.

But, contrary to the consensus of my peers, Linklater has.

MovieStyle on 08/15/2014

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