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BOYHOOD – Review

July 7, 2014

Film + Entertainment | by Francesco Cerniglia


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There are few filmmakers as eclectic, bold and original as Mr. Richard Linklater who still manages to find new ways to surprise and at the same time maintain his personal touch, even when dipping his toes in the occasional mainstream project. It only takes a quick look at his filmography to acknowledge all that and realize how gifted a storyteller he is. From the 90s high school cult Dazed And Confused to the heartwarming romance of the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) to the experimental scifi of A Scanner Darkly and the more Hollywood-friendly shenanigans of School Of Rock, this is a filmmaker we can’t remain indifferent to.

Now, after last year’s critically acclaimed and Oscar-nominated for best screenplay Before Midnight, which told a new exciting chapter in one of the most interesting cinematic love stories ever portrayed, he returns triumphantly with Boyhood, a film that has earned him a tremendous amount of attention and praise when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival back in January and rightfully so. This was in fact a passion project that Linklater nurtured over the course of twelve years and not just by developing it but actually filming it. He wanted to tell the story of a child-parent relationship from elementary school all the way to high school graduation but he wanted to explore this with authenticity so he decided to cast a child actor to follow over the course of twelve years, filming a bit of his story every year and adapting the script to whatever he was going through.

What some people might cynically dismiss as a gimmick is actually an outstanding storytelling device whose sincerity and experimental feel are simply fascinating to watch unfold on the silver screen. But what truly amazes about this unique film is the seemingly effortless naturalism and honesty Linklater manages to pull off with his screenplay that recalls a style and tone akin to the Before trilogy. Once again he collaborated with his cast to refine the script and even more so in this case where the material was a work in progress as they went along with production over the years. The result is a sprawling epic journey, filled with a sense of wonder that doesn’t come from anything sensational or spectacular but astounds us as we realize that despite being a fictional tale, what we’re watching is the genuine spectacle of real life.

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Boyhood follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a 5 years old boy with divorced parents who lives in small town Texas with his mom (Patricia Arquette) and his (slightly) older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). It’s one of those cases of premature parenthood turned into disaster with the kids’ father (Ethan Hawke) estranged in Alaska and visiting them sporadically: a classic scenario of responsible, hard-working, sacrificed mother and a bit of a man-child father who goes through life with a carpe diem attitude. When Mason’s mom realizes that the only feasible situation for them to survive financially is to go back to school in order to get a better job, they move to the big city and that’s the first main change we witness in Mason’s life that will ignite the rest of the story. Soon enough dad unexpectedly moves back to Texas and starts hanging out with Mason and Samantha on a more regular basis while mom winds up marrying her university professor who’s also a (drunkard) divorced man with children. The sea of change is unstoppable, like life itself.

There’s no point in divulging any further plot points since this isn’t a plot-based movie anyway and something else is the focus here. This is a rather peculiar cinematic experience where we see the world change through the eyes of a boy and we travel with him through childhood and teenagehood as he tries to make sense of what is thrown at him by life. I dare anyone to not empathize at all with Mason’s journey and not because it’s a particularly special one but because it’s an ordinary one and as such, not just relatable but most importantly eye-opening towards how emotionally epic our ordinary lives can be even if we don’t realize it. Linklater is a master at capturing those feelings in such a raw and visceral form that his film is filled with the essence of life’s humor and drama, often reaching peaks of Malickian poetic beauty.

The cast is absolutely spectacular, starting with outstanding newcomer Ellar Coltrane in the leading role. He brings such vigor to his character mostly with his expressions and reactions. Mason is a sensitive kid with an artistic vein who quietly observes the world around him and ponders the meaning of it all. His sister Samantha, brilliantly played by Linklater’s daughter is the exact polar opposite with her exuberant and rebellious nature. Patricia Arquette is flawless as the loving mom with a bad taste in men. And last but not least, Ethan Hawke brings the charm we love from his character in the Before trilogy to the next level in the role of the liberal, politically obsessed dad. The scene where he involves the kids in distributing Vote-for-Obama signs in the neighborhood while sabotaging the people who support McCain is hilarious.

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Linklater does a great job at capturing the various eras throughout the course of the story and he does so in delicate minimalistic ways such as Mason and his friends dressed up in Harry Potter costumes to attend the midnight release of the The Half Blood Prince in bookstores or teenage Mason and his dad discussing the unlikely chance of a new Star Wars movie while camping. And the cherry on top is a fantastic soundtrack of iconic rock and pop tunes perfectly accompanying this highly emotional journey. After all, when you open your film to vintage Coldplay and end it with Arcade Fire circa The Suburbs, you’re already ahead of the game. Detractors might lament the lack of a more substantial narrative and an excessive running time. To that I’d respond that I actually wanted more when credits started rolling and though the film is perfect the way it is, I wouldn’t mind a continuation since I trust the talented filmmaker’s artistic vision. Meanwhile though I’ll join the choir and tell you that Boyhood is undoubtedly Richard Linklater’s masterpiece and that it’s going to be hard for any other film this year to top it as my personal favorite.

Boyhood is out in UK cinemas on July 11th

Francesco Cerniglia – Film Editor