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Boyhood (2014) Review

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Between 2002 and 2013, director Richard Linklater set out to make a truly unique film. He cast young actor Ellar Coltrane as the lead of the story (Mason), staying with him from the age of six, until he starts college at eighteen. The result is Boyhood, my current favourite film of 2014, and easily one of my favourites of all time.

It’s tough to even know where to start. The film doesn’t so much tell the story of Mason’s life, it just shows it. The twelve year production process is not just a schlocky gimmick, one devised to bring in an audience to see something different. It’s merely a tool to help bring a piece of art to life. Though the eleven years it took to film, I’m sure, was anything but “mere.”

For one thing, no one was contracted for Boyhood, because there isn’t a law that allows contracts that last more than seven years. Then there’s the fact that Linklater was able to secure the money to keep making short films for over a decade, with no sight of a return in money for just as long. Boyhood exists, and that’s really quite spectacular in of itself.

The cast is fantastic, and it’s almost as wonderous to see them age twelve years as much as it is to see Mason grow up. Patricia Arquette plays his mother brilliantly, in a role that has a tough spot in the film. We see her make bad decisions, and struggle being at times a single parent. She gave the part a real down to earth, truthful feel. Ethan Hawke plays the father, a carefree type who jumps in and out of Mason’s boyhood throughout. It would almost seem like he wasn’t being a good dad to be away so much, but little lines of dialogue give you the information that between everything we see, he does have a bigger presence in son’s life.

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That is one of my favourite things about the film, we see so many moments in Mason’s childhood, but it’s still only moments. There’s so much more that we don’t see, and the selection of scenes we do see from the life of a boy growing up feel very authentic. Almost as if it were the scattered memories of Mason reflecting on random parts of his life that stand out for whatever reason. There are no title cards reflecting the date or how old he is, it simply flows from year to year.

Hawke, though, back to my thoughts on him (I can get carried away on a film like this). He was great as the father, offering important life lessons to his son and daughter (more on her soon) as well as being the “cool dad” who doesn’t have to shoulder the responsibility of bringing them up 24/7. I don’t think Linklater was trying to make a point with that, it’s just one of those things that is very realistic these days. Many parents separate, and I myself could relate to being brought up by my mother, having her as a constant in my life, along with a more inconsistent presence from my father.

The daughter, and Mason’s sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater) is great too. She bursts onto the screen with life at the beginning with a hilarious rendition of “Hit Me Baby One More Time” and through the years we see her mature. The conversation between her and Ethan Hawke about sex and protection (with a bemused Mason watching on) is one of the funniest parts, and one that felt completely real. Her character is seen less in the later years, but as an older sibling, she leaves for college before Mason, so it feels very organic for this to happen.

There are many supporting characters who appear throughout the film, and some fine performances to go with them. Marco Perella in particular really shows some range and brings an uncomfortable rawness to certain scenes as Mason’s stepfather. Without spoiling much, that section of Mason’s life has perhaps the most drama, though the real hard hitting aspects of that are more implied than seen explicitly. Which I found to be a welcome change to some films that love to show heated arguments and physicality to spice up its content. For me, the less is more approach worked wonderfully here.

The soundtrack is excellent, with music of the times used throughout to both indicate a little of the time period to the audience, but also to lend more realism to what was going on in pop culture in the story. We see Mason attend a Harry Potter book launch, be read a chapter from another in an earlier scene, and later on he discusses whether a new Star Wars film will ever be made with his father. You can even spot a DVD of The Dark Knight in his room at one point, again highlighting the popular side of entertainment that most boys and girls indulge in. Even the evolution of technology is present, though I’ve read negative responses to that, I enjoyed the progression being shown. It never felt shoe horned in to see a shot of an iPod or a video call on a phone. Just one of those things that becomes readily available and then everyone uses it.

As for Ellar Coltrane, he was just perfect. He fit into the kind of character Richard Linklater writes like a glove as he got older. His earlier performances were subtle and true to life (running out of ways to say “authentic” now!), and quite honestly portrayed a fairly unremarkable boy. Just an everyday kid who has a flair for art, is quiet, easygoing, and open minded. I can see people being turned off by this, maybe expecting a more rebellious performance or something less “boring”, as I have read in other reviews.

For me, Boyhood is anything but boring. At nearly three hours long it kept my attention fully and had me hooked in deep. It’s a different film, it doesn’t deliver a beginning, middle and end, it gives you more of a massive album of intimate snapshots into someone’s formative years. Fits of anger, childish tantrums or tearful monologues are nowhere to be seen for the most part here. Instead the focus is on the more mundane, and at times the (extremely subtle) more meaningful exchanges.

We see many aspects of Mason’s life, his relationship with his parents, his sister, an everchanging group of friends (which rings very true to me) and of course: girls. From seemingly innocent conversations with girls growing up (one in particular that brought me back to one of my own memories vividly) to giggling at lingerie catalogues, all the way to his first love and heartbreak and beyond.

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The cinematography was also really well done, something that perhaps wouldn’t stand out too much in a film like this but I really did love the way the film looked. The fact it was all shot on 35mm film is also an absolute joy, and gives the whole twelve year span of the story a very consistent look.

It’s also very funny and I had an amazing cinema experience seeing it in a small room with an intimate, warm group of people who seemed to love the film just as much as I did. The final note of the movie is both a humourous moment, and a statement that I very much hold a lot of stock in. The way it was balanced was perfect.

Before I close out this review, I’ll veer into that dreaded “spoiler” territory for one paragraph. One of the most impactful moments comes right at the end when Mason leaves for college. Patricia Arquette breaks down in tears, and wonders what’s next for her now he’s grown up. “I just…thought there would be more.” It was such a heartbreaking moment of melancholic reflection, that to me was all the more effective by not resorting to something more melodramatic. That’s what makes this film stand out and feel more like watching life than watching a movie.

I also have to mention how impressed I was with Richard Linklater’s ability to write and direct this whole film over such a long period of time, while working on many other films (including two more of my all time favourites: Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013)) at the same time. He is truly an underrated filmmaker who does his own thing, generally avoids the studio system and still manages to churn out fantastic work on the big screen. One of my favourite directors for sure.

Truly a once in a lifetime event, now one of my all time favourites, an instant classic, and the best film that captures growing up I’ve seen yet. It takes all the nuances of life and puts them on screen in a way that makes the whole experience, to my eyes, imperfectly perfect.

★★★★★

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