Review: Boyhood (Sundance 2014)
PLOT:The adolescence of a Texas-boy named Mason (Ellar Salmon)- from the time he enters grade one to his first day at college.
REVIEW: Twelve years is a long time to spend on one movie. For years, there have been whispers about what Linklater was doing in Texas with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. The buzz was that every year, Linklater would reunite his core cast, shoot for a while, and then go work on other projects. Certainly during this time, Linklater was busy enough making movies like BEFORE SUNSET, SCHOOL OF ROCK, BAD NEWS BEARS, A SCANNER DARKLY, FAST FOOD NATION, BERNIE and BEFORE MIDNIGHT that you'd never think he had the time to tackle another project- but here's BOYHOOD, twelve whole years in the making.
This feels like a logical next step for Linklater, whose BEFORE series was similar to Michael Apted's famous documentary UP series in that it allowed us to reconnect with the same characters at regular intervals, the difference being that they were fictional. BOYHOOD is even more ambitious. Imagine Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel series only with much shorter intervals, charting young Mason's life as he grows from a precocious six-year-old, to an eighteen year-old on the cusp of manhood.
Watching twelve years of a boy's life cut together in one 164 minute film is quite something. It's surprising how quickly you become invested in Mason's story, along with the lives of his sister Samantha (played by Linklater's own daughter- Lorelai- who's excellent) and divorced parents (Ethan Hawke & Patricia Arquette). It's so moving to see Mason go from being this hyper rug-rat to a thoughtful, considerate eighteen-year-old, as he ponders the kind of introspective questions that are so important as one matures. It can't be denied that Linklater lucked-out with Ellar Salmon, a natural actor whose ability grows over the course of the film, and emerges from this a very promising young actor.
As much as this is Salmon's film, the rest of Linklater's cast all do exceptional work too. Ethan Hawke is kind-of Linklater's on-screen alter-ego at this point, and similar to the BEFORE series, he seems to be playing a variation of himself. Like Salmon, he matures over the course of the film, going from being an absentee dad, to a more important presence in his son's life, even as he struggles to find his own way in the world.
Patricia Arquette arguably plays an even more significant part as Mason's mom- the parent who stuck around and raised the kids while her ex-husband went off to find himself. Like Hawke, she's a complicated, flawed character. She's often overwhelmed by parental and financial responsibilities and struggles to carve out her own path and find some semblance of happiness as men come in and out of her life. Like Hawke, she's imperfect in a way that makes her feel authentic. Arquette and Hawke are obviously more consistent from an acting perspective than the children, but like them, they also change over the years, both physically and in their manner. Linklater's own style also seems to evolve, with the early scenes adopting the fast pace of one of his mainstream movies from that era, like SCHOOL OF ROCK, while the neweer scenes are much more like one of the BEFORE movies, with long, possibly semi-improvised conversations and a more deliberate pace.
The passage of time is remarkably clear throughout, the only downside being that it can't help but make you feel old. The audience chuckled early on as Mason struggled on a big green circa-2002 Mac computer, or the giant square projection TV in the bowling alley Mason and Samantha visit with their father. Pop culture isn't spared either, with Mason and his friends lining up to buy copies of 'Harry Potter & the Half-Blood Prince' or Mason and his father discussing whether or not another STAR WARS movie will be made four whole years before it was announced. Music plays a big part, with hits of the era being emphasized on the radio, from Coldplay's 'Yellow' which opens the film, to Gotye towards the end.
Of all the films to play at this year's edition of Sundance, I don't know if I'd call it the very best (it's too early for that) but it's certainly the most important from a film history perspective, and will no doubt go down as a classic. It's an ambitious experiment that paid off big-time, both for Linklater and his audience. I can't say I've ever seen anything quite like it. Having grown a little attached to Mason and his on-screen family, the ending of BOYHOOD couldn't help but be bittersweet. Hopefully Linklater will check in on him again with another film sometime. MANHOOD anyone?