Thursday, January 22, 2015

Boyhood (2014) ****

This is the movie you've heard about. The one that took twelve years to film, as Richard Linklater followed his protagonist from age 6 to 18, filming a few scenes each year. The result is a beautiful film experience that feels incredibly real and intimate.

It's also a different kind of film experience that, with a 166 minute run-time, would be a drag if it weren't so perfectly executed. The story is fictional, but it lacks a true narrative arc. This is a coming-of-age tale about how most of us come of age: not through some dramatic event, but just through time and experience. The protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) starts the film as a 6-year-old living with his sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) and his struggling, single mom (Patricia Arquette.) The kids' dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is off living his dreams in Alaska, but drops by for the occasional visit. From this setup, we watch as the kids grow up, going through all the trials that normal kids go through. We watch as Olivia gets a degree and becomes a college professor, while going through a couple of husbands. We watch as Mason Sr. transforms over the years from an immature flake to an involved, reliable father.

Most of the buzz around this film has focused on Coltrane's Mason; after all, the title is “Boyhood.” I think it's important to point out, however, that Linklater also follows Samantha, Olivia, and Mason Sr. over the same twelve years. They are all fully-formed characters who have their own journeys.

The two younger actors are not, at this point, professionals. Lorelai is Richard Linklater's daughter, and her participation in the film was, at times, reluctant. She is reportedly not pursuing an acting career, but she does a creditable job in the film. Coltrane is also perfectly serviceable, if not particularly compelling. He was a decent, little child actor. In his later scenes as a teen, he plays Mason in a mostly understated fashion. It's unclear whether that was an acting/directing choice, or a reflection of limited range. It isn't what I would call a star-making performance, but it serves the movie well. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, on the other hand, knock it out of the park. Arquette is particularly good, and has already won a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. She gives us an Olivia who feels very real, reasonably devoted to her children, but also realistically invested in her own journey.

Even though it's fiction, “Boyhood” reminds me of the non-fiction “Up series,” which for decades has followed several English people from age seven with installments every seven years, the latest of which is “56 Up.” As with “Boyhood,” the series makes no attempt to fit its subjects' lives into a narrative; it simply follows their lives unblinkingly. There's something magical about that. As the French proverb says, “To understand all is to forgive all.”

4 stars out of 5

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