The cast ages in real time in this extraordinary epic of the ordinary, a stirring look at a family’s perseverance through the day-to-day business of getting older and growing up
A few years ago, I remember feeling lucky that I wasn’t one of the critics at the Cannes Film Festival who had to generate their opinions and analyses of “The Tree of Life” on a deadline. Some pieces of art need to steep for a while before you can think all your thoughts.
Now I’m feeling grateful that I’ll get a few months to mull over Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” — with at least one more viewing under my belt — before I have to file a full review. It’s the kind of movie that makes you answer the question, “What’s it about?’ with “Well…everything.”
“They endured.” is the famous post-script to William Faulkner’s “The Sound and the Fury,” and that’s precisely what Linklater’s characters do after a dozen or so tumultuous years. What makes the storytelling of “Boyhood” unique is that Linklater made the movie over 40 days stretched out over 12 years, so that we see the characters age before us.
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It sounds gimmicky, like Alfred Hitchcock’s extended takes in “Rope,” but there’s more at play here that just watching pop culture and technology change bit by bit with each passing year. (Linklater, a studied connoisseur of pop culture, interweaves those milestones with the facility of Armistead Maupin in the “Tales of the City” novels.)
When we meet young Mason (Ellar Coltrane), he’s a bright-eyed six-year-old who collects arrowheads and snake vertebrae, squabbles with his bratty older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and loves his devoted mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his oft-absent dad Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke).
As the years pass, Mason will find good mentors (his father, a photography teacher, his boss at a fish joint) and bad ones (Olivia picks two seemingly upright husbands who turn out to be alcoholics), he will learn about the opposite sex (from the lingerie section of the Sears catalog, via the internet and by actually talking to them) and, before our eyes, evolve from boyhood to manhood.
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We’ve seen people age onscreen before, but usually in documentaries like Michael Apted’s “Up” series or in ambitious projects like “Hoop Dreams.” For Linklater to space out the production of a narrative movie over such a long period of time gives the material genuine heft; most films would never dare feature performers clearly going through their awkward years of adolescence, but Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater make us privy to their every phase up to their emergence as fully-formed young adults.
A story with this kind of scope needs room to breathe, and at 160 minutes, “Boyhood” might meander a little, but it never drags. You can feel director Linklater and his frequent editor Sandra Adair rejecting the beats we’ve come to expect from commercial film in favor of a more organic flow, with the fits and starts of life itself.
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(There are recurring conversations throughout the film regarding Pavlov, Skinner and the science of human conditioning, and the filmmakers are too smart to ring the dinner bell exactly when we think they will.)
I can’t wait to see this low-key, unpredictable, illuminating, poignant, exhilarating movie again. If Linklater has the time and patience to spend the next dozen years making a sequel called “Manhood,” so much the better. Characters this rich deserve to endure.