Film Review: Boyhood

by Gordon Elgart on July 18, 2014

Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater in Boyhood.

Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater in Boyhood.

There are two types of people who are going to see director Richard Linklater’s newest film, Boyhood. There are those who will not know anything about, or perhaps not even care about the history of the making of the film. They may wonder what all the fuss is about. And then there are people like me who know the whole backstory, and will marvel at how this was all done, and realize that what they’re watching is an impossible movie, one that can’t exist. Yet it does, and it’s wonderful.

The only real spoiler alert that can be given for this movie does revolve around the making of it. What Linklater did is film for a few days every year, for 12 years. He used the same actors, some of the same locations, and the same film stock. He then edited these together to create a story of a boy growing from age 5-18, although other than one scene that mentions that he’s just turning 15, his age is never mentioned in the movie.  The funding came from IFC, who started investing in 2002 in a movie that wouldn’t be released for 12 years later. This is a media corporation going out on a limb, and they should be praised for this.

The way the movie deals with music of the time, and cultural artifacts specific to those times, is incredible, and I don’t know if they got lucky with these, or if they filmed 10 things so they could keep the 1 that worked. I don’t know if they cheated with CGI because they could, or if they didn’t because there was no way to “fix it in post” in 2002. I don’t know any of these things, and I really want to. The making of this movie is fascinating to me, and I’m going to get the Criterion Blu Ray when it exists so I can watch all the special features, because I think about the creative process of art and storytelling all the time, and I’m obsessed with knowing these things. Your mileage may vary.

The actor who plays the boy, Ellar Coltrane, moves from being a promising child actor to an incredibly awkward and ineffective pubescent actor to being an extremely promising teenage actor. It makes one wonder if there were years where he didn’t really feel like doing this anymore — what’s the point, he’d ask, as his character eventually does — but then later he finds his groove. More effective are the two career actors who play his parents, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Arquette was stuck in a police procedural for several years during this movie’s filming (I say stuck, but I’m sure her paycheck was not Medium sized), and to see her onscreen here feels like the return of an acting  champion — she’s fantastic. Ethan Hawke as Mason, Sr, mostly called “dad” throughout, has fewer scenes, and the character’s path from immature fun guy to mature not-as-fun guy is amazing to see, as it parallels the way I’ve seen him as an actor. I want to give these two all the awards.

What’s on screen in the end feels like a series of shorter films, each one focusing on a different important memory in the life of Mason, Jr., the boy whose boyhood we’re experiencing. What he remembers here aren’t big moments, with a couple of exceptions, but rather the conversations that hinted at these moments to come, and awkward conversations that can occur afterward. Because it plays like a series of his memories, unimportant characters appear once and are quickly forgotten. Scenes that would pay off later in a traditional movie never do.  Movie scenes that would have a sweeping emotional arc don’t, for when Mason Jr. stops needing the scene for his own story, the scenes just end.  This feels like the life and memories that most people have. It’s very ordinary, and that’s the point.

Boyhood is a must-see, and opens today, July 18th, in San Francisco. You can catch director Richard Linklater in person doing Q&A after the 7:00 show at the Sundance Kabuki, and after the 8:00 and 8:30 shows at the Landmark Embarcadero.


Gordon Elgart

A music nerd who probably uses that term too much. I have a deep love for bombastic, quirky and dynamic music.

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