As a filmmaker, I can attest to the fact that every film you make alters you; it changes the way you work, the evolution of your art, and you are never the same person at the premiere than you were when you began.
So imagine working on a film for fourteen years, in PRODUCTION for twelve, shooting three days a year for twelve straight. That is precisely the story of Richard Linklater’s ground-breaking, brilliant (prepare yourself for a great deal of hyperbole in this review), fearless Boyhood.
Boyhood‘s premise reads simply: it is the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family told through twelve years of their lives. Viewers are privy to glimpses of each year in Mason’s upbringing from ages six to eighteen: the people that float in and out of his life, his ever-changing views on his parents, the meaning of life, his outlook of the future. The gripping coming-of-age story could have been a gimmick, but this beautiful script – also penned by Linklater – and committed cast present a life lived and challenged and so real, it becomes almost difficult to separate young Mr. Coltrane from his character. Each year does not feel like a vignette or several short films pieced together; it is a whole with a complete trajectory, a flow of themes that fit together as if filmed over a month rather than a decade.
Sure, Linklater could have produced this film in a year with different actors to portray Mason throughout his life, but the element of realism to see true aging on the screen revolutionizes what we know about cinema. Every character changes in ways that feel authentic, their stories having an organic momentum based on experiences we see. Patricia Arquette as single-mom Olivia makes her share of bad decisions in men, location, and occasionally questionable parenting, but her growth as a person and maturation into a commendable head of household is earned by the mine-fields she must navigate through these years of emotionally and physically abusive relationships, self-doubt, education, and inspiration.
Everyone involved in Boyhood had to take an immense leap of faith to invest so much of their lives into one project. The cast had to trust director Linklater, that his vision would remain constant, that he would always be able to discuss their character’s journey, and Linklater had to believe that his actors would show up, every year, and live their part.
Linklater gives all the best lines to dead-beat dad turned minivan-driving weekend father Ethan Hawke; the two have such a dance now between director and actor that each could probably finish the other’s sentences. But isn’t that just like an absentee parent? They get to come on to the scene and drop knowledge bombs, be the spontaneous, “fun” dad and walk away, as the stable force (or “Mom” in this case) gets to pick up the pieces. The comfortable relationship between the Slacker director and the Before series star is obvious on screen as Hawke embodies Linklater’s character with such ease. As Hawke’s career has developed in sophistication so, too, does the Mason, Sr. character in Boyhood. It’s a life imitating art scenario that adds another meta-layer to the film. The two young actors who spent their childhood playing Mason, Jr. and older sister Sam – Coltrane and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater – are comfortable on screen, even during those awkward years when I am sure the actors questioned their decision to spend so much of their life on the project.
A sweet, poignant, so true-to-life script develops as we watch this family grow, fail, succeed, cry, fight, laugh, and mature; it is easy to see why the Oscar-nominated Linklater attracts such talent to his projects. Hawke related that the film came out so close to the original writing from the page that it is remarkable, even after all of this time, nearly a decade and a half, that the story remained constant. Coupled with a score and soundtrack that propel us through time, and a series of sophisticated shots and production design, Boyhood never feels arranged. It is as if we are a fly on the wall, following these people through time, never interfering.
But the highest success for a film that promises to be the breakout of the year is that the direction, so bold and risky and undeniably accomplished, will be the thing of legend. Linklater has done something completely new in a land that has lost its ability to create new ideas and innovate original art. To be able to continue on a path you set for yourself when you were a different person, when our lives are so in flux, and our art is so tied to our hearts, to have successfully completed a film that grabs the viewer and holds one’s attention for nearly three hours – total runtime just under 2 hours and 45 minutes – is so out of the realm of possibility, I almost feel like I dreamed.
No film, in the history of cinema, (there’s that hyperbole) has touched me the way Boyhood did. I applaud Richard, as the SXSW crowd did, on my feet for five minutes. It has been my privilege to see this film. My heart beats a little louder today because I have been so inspired to continue the legacy of great Texas filmmakers. The bar has been set, Ladies and Gentlemen.
Final Grade. A+. The best film I have ever seen. Hands Down.