This is a reprint of our review from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival.
Last night in Park City, director Richard Linklater made cinematic history with the groundbreaking “Boyhood,” a time capsule-like exploration of childhood and family shot over the course of 12 years. And it’s unlike anything you’ve seen before, though the closest analogue might be the ambitious “Up Series," Michael Apted’s documentary series that revisits the same family every 7 years to catch up with where they are in life. Evincing many lucid and extemporaneous qualities, Linklater doesn’t do catching up though, as “Boyhood” feels much less like a greatest hits package and more analogous to being in the moment, watching the sprawling, occasionally dull home videos of family over more than a decade’s time. Warm, soulful, funny and quietly insightful, “Boyhood” shines in its engrossing, experiential understanding and it’s a special achievement that should be cherished and acknowledged.
Centering on Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter), “Boyhood” chronicles the mostly small and intimate moments of the family's life, beginning in medias res with the pains of divorce already having occurred. Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is a struggling, single mom living in small town Texas trying to orient boyfriends to the fact that she has obligations and responsibilities they just don’t really understand. Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is an absentee father who hasn’t seen his kids in a year, taking off to Alaska to clear his head after the break-up, though he’s trying to make up for lost time and stay involved in the lives of his kids.
While the notion of reconciliation is something that the kids and dad are open to, “Boyhood” matter-of-factly moves to logical next steps as if watching a well-staged documentary. Going back to college to get her degree, Olivia eventually marries one of her professors, Bill Wellbrock (Marco Perella). And while the film is generally focused on the macro and less “movie-like” moments, the Bill storyline—he turns out to be an abusive, shit-head alcoholic—provides "Boyhood" with some of its biggest drama (Olivia quickly leaves him and displaces the family to yet another small Texas town much to her children’s chagrin).
But if you’re looking for the confrontation between Mason Sr. and Bill for his dangerous nature towards Olivia and the kids, you’ve come to the wrong place. “Boyhood” fast forwards ahead year by year detailing little minute growths and changes in the entire family’s life (haircuts, schools, new loves, various moves, quality times with dad, etc.). Olivia eventually remarries (to another jerk), Mason and Samantha explore the things that pre-pubescents, adolescents and teenagers explore (love, relationships, sex, alcohol, drugs) without too much melodrama, and even Mason Sr. eventually trades in his vintage ‘70s muscle car for the family life with a new wife and child. But ultimately, “Boyhood” is Ellar Coltrane’s movie, following Mason's evolution from boy, to teenager to young man, leading up all the way to his high school graduation and his first day of college.
“Boyhood” also has a summative Linklater effect to it as well. The picture begins disarmingly light on its feet, sweet, funny and playful in the early years not unlike the director’s movies about kids (“School of Rock,” “Bad News Bears”), but as the kids mature, so does the movie, eventually in the later years revealing Mason to be a thoughtful, deep-thinking teenager who wouldn’t be out of place in “Waking Life” or “Before Midnight," discussing some of the more philosophical dilemmas and obstacles about life.
Shooting 3 to 4 days every year for 12 years, Linklater scripted much of the movie in advance and it’s perhaps because of this schedule that “Boyhood” doesn’t focus on major life milestones, instead picking up year over year in seemingly banal spots, only to keep you absorbed each time. Linklater has always had a relaxed and Tao-like approach to life and filmmaking and his tranquil persona is reflected in a patient, almost 3-hour movie that never feels like it’s in a hurry to get anywhere and make major, phony statements about existence. Perhaps being a father himself and reflecting on life during this period, the filmmaker has come to realize it’s the little things that define us and we grow incrementally, almost subconsciously.
Using music as cultural signifiers, “Boyhood” subtly places you within each year via song, opening with 2000’s “Yellow” by Coldplay, hitting 2002 with The Flaming Lips track “Do You Realize?,” and heading up all the way through the years until arriving in the modern era with contemporary cuts by Arcade Fire and Daft Punk. (Linklater warned in the Q&A that all the songs weren’t cleared, but with music supervisor Randall Poster working the gig, securing them shouldn’t be too hard).
Incredibly naturalistic and low-key, “Boyhood” does sag a little bit in the unremarkable years—adolescent mundaneness isn’t very cinematic—but it’s all arguably part of the master plan. “Boyhood” could’ve perhaps used some bigger moments to really emotionally hook the viewer, but then that would be going against its raison d'être. Linklater isn’t interested in big swelling, dramatic moments but instead finds an overall snowballing sinew in the overlooked corners.
The cumulative result of “Boyhood” is rather touching and occasionally stunning and while Linklater is seemingly interested in the slighter, less trafficked moments of life, he uncovers a lot of sublimity overall (the fact that he somehow entrusted the entire movie with an unknown, then six-year-old boy, reveals just what kind of cinematic Buddha he is). The whole is indeed greater than the sum of its parts, and the collective power of it all is quite moving, as a strange, almost unexplainable melancholy and pride hits you as “Boyhood” comes to its conclusion. We’ve watched Mason on his voyage to becoming a young adult, and we have a deep sense of gratification in the knowledge that he’s going to become a fine young man one day. And there’s a sadness in that you just don’t want “Boyhood” to end, with the film a remarkable accomplishment that won’t be forgotten anytime soon. [B+]