Simply Put, 'Boyhood' Is Extraordinary

By Rob Christopher in Arts & Entertainment on Aug 6, 2014 3:30PM

Ellar Coltrane as Mason in "Boyhood" (IFC Films)
All you need to know about the plot of Richard Linklater's new film: a boy grows up.

When you see a great, truly great film for the first time, you experience a feeling that can only be called exhilaration. It's as if, walking out of the theater, you suddenly feel like the whole world is open to you. A heady, lighter-than-air sensation. I remember feeling that way when, at the age of 12, I watched Lawrence of Arabia for the first time. And again when I saw Vertigo on the big screen at McClurg Court. And, on Sunday, after watching Boyhood.

By now, you will have probably read something about Linklater's audaciously conceived project, Boyhood. In 2002 he assembled a core cast (including Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, and his own daughter Lorelei) with the notion of filming a story piecemeal over a 12 year period, slowly tracking their characters over time. The final scenes were shot last year. In short, when the film begins, Mason (Coltrane) is a dreamy six-year-old, scolded by his teacher for staring out the window too often. At film's end he's just arrived at college, checked into his dorm and met his new roommate. Before our eyes, a boy has grown up.

Possibly the wisest decision Linklater made was to shoot in 35mm rather than digitally. Despite the timespan between the first moments and the last, Boyhood has an astonishingly consistent "look" moment to moment that's uncanny, a sort of God's eye view of the characters' personal histories. His second wisest decision was to eschew any "One Year Later" title cards, or any other hackneyed devices to indicate the passage of time. The moments flow across the years without interruption, forcing you to pay strict attention to even the tiniest variations in hairstyles, clothes, music, even what's on TV in the background of a shot. You become an active viewer. And if it's amazing to watch a boy grow up, it's equally fascinating to see how the adults change over time. Arquette (tough yet tender in a career-best performance) transforms from a stressed-out young woman to, well, a mom who must cope with an empty nest for the first time in her life. Hawke (effortlessly magnetic, as usual) morphs from a GTO-driving "cool" dad to a middle-aged guy with a wrinkled face who owns a mini-van and wears a tie. And Mason's older sister Samantha (a ebullient Lorelei Linklater) progresses from bratty tomboy to wise-ass teenager to confident college student.

But if Boyhood was simply a time-lapse stunt, it would come off feeling like little more than a clever gimmick. It isn't, and it doesn't. Instead, Boyhood's form is simply the ideal one for examining those themes that have always interested Linklater. The nature of reality. Dreams. Aspirations. Uncertainties. Human flaws, and how we learn to live with them over time. His big-hearted gentleness makes allowances for the conviction that, to quote Hawke's character, "everybody's just winging it." I won't detail what happens during the film's 164 minutes, but its intimate focus coupled with its epic sweep makes for a journey that's concerned with nothing short of what it means to be alive.

Yet one thing I really appreciate about the film is that it doesn't aim to be any sort of "definitive" coming-of-age tale (unlike, as Michael Smith so astutely observes, Tree of Life). By design and through detail, it's about a very specific boy, and his family and friends in Texas in the first part of the 21st Century. That specificity of detail, and the richness of the performances, help to create a world that feels utterly real. Mason's experiences hardly dovetail with those of my own childhood. Yet the movie enveloped me so thoroughly in its world that I found myself replaying moments from the movie in my dreams the night after I saw it. The very definition of haunting, and only one of the many reasons why Boyhood is far and away the best film I've seen this year.

165 minutes, Rated R
Directed and Written by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Now playing in select cities. Opening in wide release this week.