Read Chris Bumbray's Sundance review here!
PLOT: Filmed over a 12 year span with the same cast, BOYHOOD shows us a piece of the life of a young man growing up - literally before our eyes - in Texas.
REVIEW: "Remarkable" is the first word that hits home when BOYHOOD's 160-minute life-spanning story concludes. There are certainly more adjectives available, a few that will sound like hyperbole to anyone who hasn't experienced the film: "Astounding," "Unforgettable," "Game-changing." But "remarkable" works because, whether you've been moved or not by Richard Linklater's latest treatise on the challenges and joys of being alive, there's no question that what he's done is an accomplishment of the highest order. Most of us struggle to finish an anecdote that makes a lick of sense; Linklater has patiently waited 12 years to bring us his best story yet.
And it's an understated story, when you stand back and really look at it. While Linklater has followed the growth of one young man, played by Ellar Coltrane, from ages 6 to 18 - shooting a little bit every year from 2002 - 2013 - the tale is one of a more-or-less average adolescence, depicting the many pains and pleasures a young boy (or girl) is subjected to. Linklater has wisely used his 12-year odyssey not as a gimmick but as a technique to share a universal truth about what it's like to go from child to young adult. Yes, we recognize the pop culture moments in time - a Britney Spears song, the release of a Harry Potter book, the Presidential election - but they're background to the main story, and only add to the air of nostalgia that the film effortlessly exudes.
Linklater's subject is Mason Jr. (Coltrane), a wide-eyed boy living with his protective mother (Patricia Arquette) and irritating sister (Lorelai Linklater) while his his man-boy dad (Ethan Hawke) pops in every once in a while. Mason for all intents and purposes is a regular kid; he likes to ride his bike, he checks out bras in a Sears catalogue, squabbles with his sister. It's the carefree life of a boy where "responsibility" isn't even a thought yet. But as we all must, Mason begins to learn that life isn't all cool summer evenings: Relationships grow increasingly complicated, sometimes things are uprooted. His mother gets together with a professor, who seems like a good man but turns out to be a moody drunk. Step-siblings are in and out of his life in a flash. He learns about girls. He begins to have interests in more than childish things.
We see Coltrane age seamlessly before our eyes as Mason's story unfolds. Linklater doesn't bother with title cards announcing the year; the transitions are smooth and beautiful. One moment we're seeing Coltrane as a six-year-old, the next he looks just a bit older. 15 or 20 minutes later, he looks a bit older yet again. And so on. But the novelty of what we're witnessing is but an afterthought, as we're thoroughly caught up in the life of Mason Jr. Linklater's masterstroke is that he largely holds back on the melodrama: no sudden tragedies or earth-shattering revelations are shoveled in to add extra spice to the proceedings. The director knows that the relative simplicity of the subject matter is all that is needed, as the evolution of boy into man is so fundamentally accessible to all who watch it.
Mason Jr. isn't the only person we see grow up; we watch the evolutions of his parents too. Mason Sr. is a prototypical "fun" dad at the outset, with his GTO and his camping trips, but he too must mature, settling down with a new woman and child (and minivan). The boy's mother hits rough patches in her struggle to avoid a vicious cycle - she has the tendency to wind up with the wrong men - but ultimately becomes a teacher and stable influence. The journeys they take are reflected in Mason Jr. and vice versa.
The acting is about as good as you could ask for. Coltrane has a simple, laid-back persona; even as a kid there's an ease about him that is enjoyable to behold. Linklater doesn't ask the world of him, no showboating or over-the-top moments are required; he's just a regular young man with a natural screen presence. Ethan Hawke is playing a role very natural to him, that of the man living with a slight case of arrested development (and hell, Hawke's the one who ages the least to our eyes), and it's another fine collaboration between he and Linklater. The real stand-out is Arquette; as with most of the moms in this world, she's the one who seems to have the most put upon her shoulders. Mom doesn't get to be fun, she has to bear the weight of her bad choices in plain sight of her children, she has to take care of pretty much everything. Arquette is masterful in the role, at once to vulnerable and strong; we root for for almost as much as we do for Mason Jr., and her progression over time is just as fascinating.
BOYHOOD is a special gift to film lovers everywhere. When so many movies are about nothing at all, this one is about life itself. That's to be cherished.