Boyhood — the Richard Linklater movie that won the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture — Drama on Sunday, and is sure to be among the Oscar nominations this Thursday morning — at first appears to be an interesting experiment in time-lapse photography, but ultimately turns out to be a poignant and arresting work of art.
As you no doubt know, Boyhood was filmed over 12 consecutive years, so instead of having its actors replaced by older counterparts as the movie progresses, we watch the same Ellar Coltrane (as Mason Evans Jr.), Lorelei Linklater (his sister Samantha), Patricia Arquette (their mom, Olivia) and Ethan Hawke (birth parent Mason Evans Sr.) as they age. The movie’s two hour and 45 minute running time allows this to happen at a natural pace. Every now and then, without fanfare, everyone is suddenly a year older.
Apart from this ambitious feature, Boyhood is mostly a fairly standard family drama, not a sociological documentary in the style of Michael Apted’s Up Series, or a complex masterpiece on the order of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. Nor does Boyhood feature a tourniquet-tight script and breathtaking cinematography like Birdman. At times, it can feel like a TV movie. Nothing earth-shattering happens — just life.
While Richard Linklater did direct the comedies Dazed and Confused (1993) and School of Rock (2003), he is no stranger to serendipitous sagas or Ethan Hawke. The two worked together on Before Sunrise (2001), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013), the romantic trilogy that begins with a couple meeting on a train and spontaneously getting to know each other while roaming Vienna one night.
Not everything in Boyhood works well. There’s a scene involving Mason and his teenage buddies in a house under construction that is cringeworthy for its amateurism. Patricia Arquette simply is not a convincing psychology professor. Ethan Hawk’s performance is charming, but his ex-husband character doesn’t always add up. He’s a bit of a stereotypical ne’er-do-well, struggling as a musician driving a vintage GTO — yet he has solid people skills, sound insights, and great fathering instincts, so what went wrong? The way 15-year-old Mason is welcomed by his dad’s Bible-and-gun-revering in-laws is presented with an almost creepy significance. Technological and political milestones conspicuously date the story’s timeline for no good reason. The symbolism of a minivan is overplayed.
On the other hand, the movie has some excellent moments. As Olivia’s second husband Bill, Marco Perella portrays alcoholism with a subtle authenticity that’s rare in acting. Simultaneously sloppy and persnickety, his belly and his bullying, the liquor store visits, his driving, and his illegible check-writing are all uncomfortably true to life. Early on, children’s growth markers are painted over. Toward the end of high school, Mason has several conversations with a girlfriend (Zoe Graham as Sheena) that seem stunningly natural. Some meaningful interruptions by a photography teacher and a couple different restaurant managers are slightly forced, but touching nonetheless. Mason’s graduation party is wonderfully genuine.
In the long run, though, the really great thing about Boyhood is its long view. The tempo is relaxed, and the effect is cumulative. We get to follow the trajectory of two adults as they ascend, then arc over the hill, and two children as they are carefully launched into the turbulent atmosphere to finally arrive at the threshold of all possibility. Life is a relay race or a musical round — and these characters get to consider each other’s performance from the opposite perspective. The movie culminates in a profoundly moving scene between mother and son that Patricia Arquette pulls off perfectly.
Boyhood‘s overall effect is deeply thought-provoking. I want my nephews to see it — and my nieces too, when they’re a little older. Despite the title, the movie involves Samantha almost as much as it does Mason. (The engaging Lorelei Linklater is the director’s daughter, and the black 1970 Pontiac GTO is Linklater’s own car. Also, Ethan Hawke’s guitarist buddy is played by real-life guitar legend Charlie Sexton. )
I rate the movie three and a half out of four stars.
Here’s another review from Alonso Duralde, Christy Lemire, and Ben Mankiewicz at What The Flick?! back in July: