Boyhood: Linklater’s Masterpiece–Classic Tale for the Ages

boyhood_posterBoyhood, the strikingly original, deeply moving epic, shot over a period of 12 years, is one Richard Linklater’s best films; the other  is Dazed and Confused of 1993.

A highlight of this year’s Sundance Film Festival (where it received its world premiere in January), it’s also a major achievement of the American Independent Cinema, offering the raison d’etre for the movement.

My review is based on first impressions, though I have no doubts that the film merits a second (and third) viewing to absorb all of its illuminating details and the rigorous attention that was applied to commit them on screen.

Likely to get strong critical support, Boyhood is being released theatrically by the entrepreneurial IFC on July 11. You are not likely to see such a profound and touching (but not sentimental) feature this (or any other) summer.

In the first chapter, the protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane in a breakthrough performance), age 6, ups-sticks for Houston. He dismantles his bedroom and helps tidy the house.  He doesn’t forget to daub white paint over the pencil marks on the doorframe, which have measured his growth as well as that of his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s real-life) from infancy until the present.

boyhood_1In a single frame, the director signals one of the film’s central themes: The inevitable, sometimes painful, impact of time on the processes of growing up and slow maturation into young adulthood.

Remarkably, Linklater shot Boyhood chronologically, in sequence, at regular intervals, over a 12-year period, with the same actors (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) playing the parents.

In the course of the tale, we observe Mason as he shoots up, his voice cracks, his heart is broken by this an that girlfriend.

The adult figures around him also grow, or more specifically change.  His harried mother (Arquette in a career-best performance) goes through a cycle of bad marriages and abusive husbands (and fathers), until she finds fulfilment as a psychology professor at the local college.

His deadbeat father (Hawke), who early on is totally absent (in Alaska for several years to find himself) and later semi-absent, straightens out into a quieter life and a new family of his own. In a poignant scene, he sells his GTO and buys a minivan instead.

boyhood_2History, both micro and macro, is constantly and continuously moving, from obvious changes in seasons and climates to less obvious changes that are more culturally and technologically conditioned.  People cannot (and don’t) smoke anymore in public spaces, and the introduction of new social media and communication gadgets (cels, iphones) have more profound effects on our daily lives than we can acknowledge.

The broader politics context is also depicted, as some of the swing states turn from red to blue.  In a wonderful scene, the father, a strong supporter of the Democrats, tells his children to vote for “anybody but Bush,” raising his objections to the Iraq War, and denying any connection to the 9/11 tragedy.

At the end of high-school, Mason decides he wants to be a photographer.  “Any dip-shit can take pictures,” his sober tutor tells the boy in a rather discouraging manner. “It’s hard to make art.”

But Linklater is a shrewd filmmaker who knows that the process of making art is just as important as the end result.  Witness his impressive dedication to the making of his other longitudinal saga, the three-chaptered epic: Before Sunrise, Before Midnight and Before Sunset.

boyhood_3Editing must have been crucial and tough for such undertaking.  The story is carefully and poignantly assembled. As we watch the film, which moves smoothly and gracefully, we tend to forget that we are seeing actors on screen, and both Hawke and Arquette should be commended for rendering naturalistic performances under extraordinary shooting conditions (three days a year)

boyhood_6_arquetteThe more particular the tale of this family gets, the more universal its portraiture and meaning become. And viewers, of different walks of life, should be able to empathize or even sympathize with many of the event depicted on screen.

“What’s the point? I sure as shit don’t know,” says Mason’s father. “We’re all just winging it.” Precisely. By the end of the saga, a whole life seems to have been lived, and yet there’s still so much left to go through and look forward to.

boyhood_5_hawkeA rare feature, one that is both epic and intimate, Boyhood captures life’s pull and push forces, forward and backward motions like no other film I know of.   Despite potentially melodramatic and tragic events (moving out of the neighborhood and losing friends, being forced by an uncaring stepfather to cut his long hair), the film is always light on its feet.  Showing immense sensitivity to the relentless and incessant flow of life’s ups and downs, Linklater handles the turning points in a natural way, inviting viewers to share his own curiosity and sense of discovery of this boy’s life.