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Boyhood | Review

About a Boy: Linklater’s Unique Experiment a Mostly Enjoyable Endeavor

Richard Linklater Boyhood PosterAn experience that is as enhanced by the aura of its experimental nature as it is sometimes hindered by it, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a film shot in 39 days over the course of 12 years, has long been gathering a sort of mythic anticipation. The result is a unique and unprecedented experience, and one that may not quite live up to its expectation or even some other far superior titles from Linklater’s own recent filmography. That said, with nearly a three hour running time and daunting shoot, he has created a seamless portrait of childhood, adolescence and parenting that is at times arresting and aggravatingly uninteresting. And just as we watch its engaging cast members grow before our eyes, so do we see Linklater’s own craft as a director and screenwriter transform as well.

We meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as a six year old in 2002, living with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), divorced Olivia some time ago, and pops up unexpectedly from Alaska to visit his kids in Texas, where he plans to return to live sometime soon. It’s unclear why exactly Mason Sr. and Olivia divorced, but it’s immediately apparent that they were not well matched. Unfortunately, it seems Mason Sr. was one of Olivia’s better choices in men.

Going back to school in order to obtain a degree and provide a better life for her family, Olivia marries one of her professors who has two kids of his own. Their new stability quickly becomes a nightmare as the new step-dad develops into a violent alcoholic who is verbally and physically abusive. While she leaves him, Olivia eventually remarries again, this time after she’s out of school and established as a professor. Her next choice is a man that also shares a weakness for the bottle. As the children develop, Samantha moves off to college and we begin to focus more on Mason Jr., who begins to look more and more like his father. Meanwhile, Mason Sr. also gets remarried to a Christian woman and starts a new family.

The script, along with the performers, developed anew at each filming rendezvous, is enhanced by a dramatic impact in the stellar first half that is lacking from the more recent footage which depicts the later years of Mason’s adolescence. There’s a certain empathy we develop for these children and the unlucky-in-love Olivia, a mother trying to do the best she can while trying to make worthwhile romantic connections. In fact, it’s Arquette’s performance that becomes the captivating force. Hawke pops up here and there, though his contradictory mix of fool and wise man isn’t too unlike his role in Linklater’s Before trilogy, a project that usurps Boyhood in scope and quality.

Lorelei Linklater is also an enigmatic presence in the first half, though she’s mostly absent as Coltrane develops into a young man, an experience mostly so powerful to behold because we’re watching the same person portray different stages of one person encapsulated in one film, like if Truffaut’s Jean-Pierre Leaud films were compressed into one. And from a technical standpoint, Boyhood is a masterful achievement, especially for Linklater fans that can make comparisons to Linklater’s techniques with his other films that came out during various stages here. Toward the end of this film, drawn out dialogues come to resemble the Before films, expect, the problem is, where as we are so engaged in the story of Jesse and Celine from those films, Mason Jr.’s adolescence is rather uneventful. He’s rather lazy and unmotivated, though not without significant talent as a photographer. He has a relationship with a young woman that’s rather so-so.

Linklater’s soundtrack, (which might be subject to change since not all the right have been obtained), is also a distraction, particularly in its opening half when snips of period tracks from Blur and Sheryl Crow soar with non-diegetic uncertainty over the proceedings. However, this sometimes seems a more subtle way to evoke time period than several politically related conversations transpiring during the Bush administration years that seem a bit too pointed. But despite these minor diversions, Boyhood is a unique cinematic experience, not unlike Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentary series. While it may pale in comparison to the dramatic impact achieved with Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight, it’s a daunting piece of work and certainly a respectable achievement.

Reviewed on January 19 at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival – Premieres. – 164 Mins
★★★ / ☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.


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