Synopsis: Boy is this one hard to summarize properly. Beginning in 2002, Boyhood charts the growth and development of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 5 to 18. Mason bounces around the state of Texas with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater), with his (at times) estranged father (Ethan Hawke) always a step or two behind. Throughout the 12 year journey, Mason endures poverty, a host of stepfathers, and a perpetual lack of stability all while attempting to discover who he really wants to be. Boyhood was filmed over the course of this 12 year period, in short installments each year, and thus, each of the cast members remains constant throughout the entirety of the film. In this way, you are actually seeing a boy grow up on screen before your very eyes.
What I Liked: Movies like this, films that are thoroughly profound and universally significant, often leave me feeling inadequate. As in, "how am I supposed to critique something this monumental without seeming like a complete moron?" It also doesn't help that there are any number of essays on the merits of Boyhood which have already been published by much greater minds than mine (and much better writers, too). To add my very meager endorsement to the list of accolades this film has already garnered, let me just say that Boyhood is simply something that you need to experience for yourself. It isn't exactly entertaining nor is it easy to watch; in fact, there are moments that are downright painful. But the point of the film is to illustrate life itself in the most realistic terms possible within this medium and as we all know, life can be quite messy at times, can't it? There is a forthright dedication to authenticity that overruns virtually every other aspect of Boyhood and kind of forces you to think about your own adolescence as Mason goes through his. I found myself reliving, or at least reviewing, my own youth (which is further away from me than I care to admit) and running through all of the feelings that come with that. As such, this a less-than-consistently-comfortable day at the movies but it is without question a wholly unique experience that I dare say will never be replicated.
From a straight up movie perspective, there are some glitches within Boyhood (see below) but they are almost always trumped by the sheer magnitude of what is taking place before your eyes. Coltrane proves to be perhaps the perfect fit for this role in that nothing he does overpowers the rest of the film but he always seems up to the task of whatever situation director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock) puts Mason in, which makes this a very appropriately even performance. The narrative is simple but Linklater uses it quite efficiently; we move from year to year in Mason's life without much pomp or circumstance and then we are simply shown a day or a week in the life of a typical child. People come in and out of Mason's life, for better or for worse, and we see the way Mason's decisions, as well as the decisions of those around him (particularly his mother), impact his "character arc" (as it were). Anchoring each shift and change in Mason's life is his father, whether he's actively involved in his son's life at the time or not, and through all of this Hawke absolutely SHINES. Coltrane is the star of the film and has deservedly drawn the most attention but in my opinion it is Hawke, and his interactions with his unknown, novice counterpart, that truly bring Boyhood its greatest depth. I would like for him to receive all of the awards in a few months.
What I Didn't Like: While Boyhood is ALMOST perfect, there are a few bumps in the road that seem to pop up in the most inopportune of moments. For starters, while Hawke is a centering and genuine force within the movie, too often Arquette comes across as too wooden or perhaps just more actor-y than the part calls for. Many times I found myself treating Boyhood like a documentary only to be taken out of that mindset when Arquette popped up again. It's not a BAD performance, it's just slightly off from what I think the role called for.
In addition, some of the ancillary characters turn out to be far more caricature-like than the leading characters, leaving a bit of a cliche aftertaste in the midst of a narrative that really goes out of its way to avoid cliches. It also, I think, spends a little too much time focusing on the hardships in Mason's life and misses a few opportunities to bring some genuinely positive influences in to offset a bit of the negative. That's not to say Boyhood dwells in the dark or ever becomes actually depressing; but there are times when I think the story was begging for someone, anyone, besides the dad to step into Mason's life and be a decent human being. And look, I know this is a VERY minor complaint, but when a movie is jumping from year to year and asks you to use context clues to figure out where in the protagonist's life we've landed, your musical choices need to be accurate. Coldplay's "Yellow", which was released in 2000, opens the movie that starts in 2002 and there are several other musical interludes that took me out of the film for just a second as I tried to work out what year we were in. Again, very minor, but when the entire film is built on staying in the reality of the film, you don't want to be pulled out of it every time a song cues up in the background.
In many ways the blips on the Boyhood radar are very small and do little, if anything, to hinder the film. That said, this blemishes are so small that they're almost more frustrating than if the movie was rife with holes and screw ups. I wanted Boyhood to be a masterpiece and it absolutely has the opportunity to be so but these tiny little missteps keep it teetering right on the edge of perfection and ultimately, for me, keep it from becoming the greatest version of itself.
Conclusion: Simply put once more, Boyhood is like no other film you are every likely to see. Linklater (one of my absolute favorites who will almost undoubtedly find his name listed at just about every award he is eligible for this winter) has created something that exudes life with every frame and provides a thoughtful and almost completely unique view of growing up. It's not an easy watch but then again, some movies are meant to entertain and some are meant to make you think and five days after viewing Boyhood I'm still thinking about it. I could not recommend this one more highly.
Grade: A+ (Rated R for language, drug and alcohol use, and some sexual references)