Boyhood (Richard Linklater, 2014) – Boyhood has received a lot of free marketing and curiosity from its central stunt of filming a single actor over the course of 12 years to capture an entire childhood in a single feature. However, Richard Linklater’s latest is far from a parlor trick. It feels like a culminating, career-capping masterpiece from a filmmaker whose primary interest was always hanging around and watching characters. This time he just hung around long enough to tap into something profound. It’s grown from a weird experimental project that Linklater would discuss occasionally in interviews into an Oscar front runner (and as of last night, Golden Globe winner) actually worth all of the ink and bandwith dedicated to slathering it in praise.
The film is as long as Transformers: Age of Extinction, but feels half as ass-taxing because watching 12 years so wonderfully and beautifully condensed into 160 minutes is much less draining than almost three hours of nearly incomprehensible twisted metal. The plot, like the film itself plays small, yet feels large. Ellar Coltrane stars from a five year old until an 18 year old as Mason. Mason’s parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) have split up and his sister (Richard Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) can be irritating in the way that all siblings are. Arquette moves the children through a few failed relationships with would-be stepfathers/alcoholics, but she also puts herself through school and becomes a college professor. Hawke grows from an enthusiastic manchild with dreams of rock stardom into a wise and functional adult. Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow from kids into young adults with all that implies. There are a few big dramatic moments, but no more than there are in anyone’s life and never in a way that stretches credibility given the extended time span that the film covers. It always feels small and real. The transitions in time are abrupt, noticeable only by the central actor’s physical growth and a few fleeting mentions of contemporary events. Like all Linklater movies, each individual scene feels so small as to almost be inconsequential. Yet there’s something about the accumulative effect of the film that is almost indescribably powerful.
Somehow Linklater truly makes you feel like you’ve lived with these people for over a decade by the time the credits roll. The details all add up and the aging conceit never once feels like a gimmick. There are of course precedents to this type of lifespan observational filmmaking like Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series that began with The 400 Blows or even Linklater’s own Before Sunrise trilogy. Yet, no one has ever dared to attempt such ambitious long form cinematic storytelling in a single movie before. Logistically, it must have been a nightmare to pull together and it’s an admirable directorial feat by Linklater for that reason alone. Yet it says a great deal about his particular skills and gifts as a filmmaker that it’s almost impossible to consider that while watching Boyhood.
Linklater’s primary fascination has always been observation, whether it’s the anthropological high school stoner comedy of Dazed and Confused, the lost community of eccentrics in Slacker, or even Jack Black’s pint-sized Motley Crue in School of Rock. He’s got an extraordinary ability to craft fully immersive movies that hinge not on plot twists and story beats, but on conversation and moments of acutely realized behavior. In that way, Boyhood is the ultimate Linklater movie, deriving its power from carefully crafting and observing a single family’s lifespan for long enough that deep truths about everyone’s personal growth and upbringing start to reflect off of his creation. There are moments towards the end when characters directly discuss these themes to put a button on the movie, yet somehow even in those scenes the film feels wholly naturalistic. They are the type of conversations those people might have in that moment even if they are also important lines of dialogue for those characters to say in those scenes.
Obviously, for a film like this to work the acting must be impeccable and thankfully Linklater’s skill with casting hasn’t dulled since he essentially discovered an entire generation of actors for Dazed And Confused. Ellar Coltrane is at the center and he is a remarkable find. The entire movie hinged on his believability and he never ceases to be natural from start to finish. Despite the title, part of what makes the movie so special is that’s it’s a carefully crafted study of an entire family told through Coltrane’s eyes. Lorelei Linklater is just as strong and goes through a growth just as dramatic even if she doesn’t feature in every scene. And yet, despite those two central characters going through such momentous physical changes, it might be the Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke who steal the movie. Both actors are given even greater dramatic arcs than the kids are carry it off exquisitely. Arquette grows from a confused single mother into an abused woman in a horrible marriage, and finally into a strong, independent, and successful woman without for a second feeling like a different person. Hawke on the other hand grows from a bit of a deadbeat, yet peppy cool Dad into a white collar Christian without it ever feeling like a leap or a cheat. While Coltrane and Linklater might have signaled the time span of the movie through their physical growth, it’s Hawke and Arquette who are tasked with expressing full internal and emotional character transformations. They do it so well, that most viewers will take them for granted even though both actors give arguably the finest performances of their careers.
The film debuts on Blu-Ray in the middle of its rush for awards glory in a package clearly made by people who know how special their movie is. Even the packaging is unique, with Criterion-style cardboard box art and a booklet offering a timeline and quotes from the filmmakers. The transfer is gorgeous and the lossless audio mix is clean. Clearly effort was put in to ensure that Boyhood looks and sounds as pleasant as possible, though as with any Linklater movie the tech specs are not the main selling point. He knows how to make a movie look good, but that’s always secondary to his characters and world and his films are always better for it.
The special feature section kicks off with a 15-minute documentary about the 12-year production that’s far more satisfying than the running time suggest. Linklater and the central actors speak with candor and honesty and their sense of the significance of the project grows over time. Even seeing how the aspect ratio and quality of the video cameras is an amusing document of the length of this unique production. Some of the talking head material from this doc is repeated and expanded in a second 15-minute Q&A with the Linklaters, Coltrane, Hawke, and Arquette. The collection of interviews explores their ideas, observations, and feelings about the production in greater detail. The most fascinating part of these Q&As is that they are spread across the entire 12-year production, offering a mini-version of Linklater’s grand experiment growing insight to the nature of this unique production (this is particularly true of the interviews with the kids, as you get to see them grow from pint-sized balls of energy who don’t quite understand what they are apart of into melancholy young adults depressed that the movie is over).
These featurettes are undeniably fascinating, yet I can’t help but feel that there’s much more material that exists than was presented (especially considering the fact that production started during the height of special edition DVD budgets). There will probably be a feature length doc compiled eventually, either for it’s own stand alone release or for a Criterion Boyhood re-release. The material is too good for that not to happen. Finally, Canadian Blu-Ray buyers get an extra interview with Hawke recorded by Mongrel at some point during last year’s Toronto Film Festival. There’s a little overlap with his other interviews, but not much as he’s coming from the perspective of having seen the film now and appreciating its initial impact.
Boyhood is an easy movie to oversell. It’s a film that deserves to be slapped with adjectives like “masterpiece” and “landmark.” Yet, to go into the movie expecting a grand sweeping masterpiece that will change what you think cinema is capable of would be a mistake. Boyhood is a very small movie, comprised of a series of small moments that build up to something more. Let it wash over you. At first it will seem cute and relatable. Then towards the end you’ll feel like you’ve lived a life with this family. Your brain will start to race and your emotions will start to swell. It’s only when all the little pieces come together that Boyhood emerges as an experience that feels deep, sweeping, moving, and all-encompassing. You know, like life.