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Friday, August 1, 2014

Review: Boyhood

Boyhood is the ultimate "show, don't tell" film. One of the more audacious experiments in cinema, Richard Linklater spent 12 years filming, fairly quietly, the journey of Ellar Coltrane's Mason, from age 7 until he was 18, and formed a series of vignettes around the character to mark off each year. Think of it as Linklater taking the entire Before series and condensing its time span into one film.

In many ways, what Boyhood stands for actually overshadows what it is. At its core, Linklater's latest is a call to arms for the power of what filmmakers can and should strive towards: new and innovative ideas. This is particularly underlined when Boyhood opens in the same month the latest Marvel release and an interminable Apes film. Despite the high-octane action of the latter two offerings, what Linklater produces here is truly adventurous cinema. This is a film that isn't afraid to throw you in the deep end without a life-raft of pummeling exposition, nor does it feel the need to have a big moment every five seconds to hold your attention. Boyhood is the closest thing we've seen to actual lived-in cinema.

The other important aspect of Boyhood that warrants mentioning is its snapshot aspects. Linklater's earlier Before series could pretty comfortably be labeled as the ultimate look at Generation X. It starred one of the key actors of that era (Ethan Hawke) and its worldview was very attuned to the concerns of those born in the 1970's with each film adjusting as its leads entered their 30s and then 40s for the subsequent sequels. Boyhood is, in a way, the next extension of that idea, this time focusing on the children of Gen X-ers, which basically falls under the "Millennial" umbrella. Linklater hammers this home by bringing in Hawke yet again, to play the father, as well as Patricia Arquette to play the mother (she of True Romance fame, one of the big early 90's touchstones). You can easily make the argument that Boyhood is a thematic sequel to Before Midnight; I'd buy it. But more importantly, its the first film to really put together a cogent thesis about the current generation, and the fact that its being helmed by a gentleman whose daughter plays the lead's sister adds one more wrinkle of authenticity.

While a plot summary doesn't really serve justice to what will unfold in front of viewers, the premise is such: Mason (Coltrane) is your average 7 year old boy, he and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) live with their single mother Olivia (Arquette) and they're on the verge of moving back to Houston to live with their grandmother so she can go back to school and get a higher paying job. Their father, Mason Sr. (Hawke) is a shiftless lay-about musician who has returned from Alaska and has a prickly relationship with Olivia and is trying to find a way to reconnect with his two fairly estranged children. Every few scenes we find that the story has jumped a year or maybe more, with technology changing, and pop culture interests shifting. You'll bear witness to quiet moments like Mason and Samantha lining up to pick up the new Harry Potter novel, or much more dramatic times like Olivia's doomed marriage to an alcoholic. The plot, what there actually is of it, is secondary to the experience, which in turn is a pretty accurate reflection of everyday life. This isn't just a movie, its an entire adolescence crammed into a three hour narrative.

Whats remarkable about that last point is how uninterested Boyhood is in the big teenage milestones. We don't see Mason's first kiss, the loss of his virginity, or his first experimentation with illicit substances. Instead, we get a scene where Mason discovers a dead bird, camps out in a half-built house, or is forced to get a hair cut by his step father. Linklater takes an unpredictable project and imbues it with an as atypical a narrative as possible. There is not one moment in Boyhood that can be seen coming or called ahead of time. Linklater has made a career of thumbing his nose at expectations, and this might be his crowning achievement in that regard.

With that risk does come a less than effective moment or two. When the drama ratchets up, which it only does in small doses, the players involved other than Hawke, have a difficulty in meeting whats demanded of them. Nowhere does this fall more blatantly than on Arquette's shoulders. Never a particularly outstanding performer, she exudes her typical placid veneer for most of Boyhood's running time, which works fine until she's forced to play the abused housewife, or someone that's angry at her kids, or sad that her son is moving away for college. At these points her limited range becomes strained beyond all belief. The drama can also be pretty patchy, and its clear that the co-writing of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke from the Before movies is missed here as we're forced to endure some slightly out of place political punditry and moments that feel like they somewhat come out of nowhere (one character's alcoholism feels less like a natural evolution and more like something that just sort of happens). But, the individual pieces that don't work really do just fade into the framework of the overall structure.

Boyhood isn't about singular moments, instead we're given as close an approximation of childhood as any ever filmed: small instances given cumulative power due to their proximity to one another. It's a tale of unplanned occurrences and a one of a kind on-screen experiment. The fact that it works at all should be applauded. That its actually enjoyable should be cheered. That its one of the strongest films of the year and a possible Best Picture candidate? A minor miracle. But, after last year's masterpiece in Before Midnight, anything less would be a disappointment. It's not flawless, but darn if its not perfect for trying in the first place.

Rating: A-

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