VOD Movie Review: Boyhood

(l to r) Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), Mom (Patricia Arquette), Mason (Ellar Coltrane), age 6, in “Boyhood.”
Courtesy of Matt Lankes. An IFC Film Release.

By Kimberly Gadette (doddleNEWS)

When we first learn that Boyhood is a coming-of-age piece about a first grader named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), we might think: Haven’t we seen this scenario a million times before? What’s the big deal? But the fact that this particular coming-of-age story is literal, shot over a 12-year period with the same principal cast, allowing us to witness a 6-year-old child as he incrementally grows into a college-bound young man before our very eyes … well, that IS a big deal. And the very first film of its kind.

Perhaps Michael Apted’s Seven Up series might come to mind. But while Apted’s films are documentaries that occur once every seven years, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a dramatic fiction that allows us to run alongside the bumpy timeline of one family’s life. It’s a trek worth taking, teeming with divorces, marriages, uprooted households, first loves, break-ups, bullying stepfathers, etc. Yet no matter the stumbles, this family’s backbone remains intact.

Writer/director Linklater (Bernie, School of Rock, Dazed and Confused) has delved into a fictional continuum before, having directed and co-written the Before series (1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy). Yet Boyhood is all of a piece, a 165-minute seamless narrative that explores the lives of Mason, older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter) and the siblings’ divorced parents, Mom/Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Dad/Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Given the unfeigned performances and realistic scenes that could have been lifted from our own family dramas, we can’t help feeling inexorably attuned to these people … as if the idea of sitting down to dinner with them is not only possible, but de facto.

Linklater has crafted a marvelous screenplay, carefully creating succinct yet telling snapshots from each year. While a 165-minute running time may sound overlong, the parade of compact scenarios are so varied, so compelling, that we don’t notice the time ticking by. (Linklater had planned to encapsulate each year into ten minutes, hoping for a 2-hour film, max. But, as he states, ” I decided to let the film be what it wanted to be without imposing that kind of restriction.”)

Mason (Ellar Coltrane), age 6, in “Boyhood.”
Courtesy of Matt Lankes. An IFC Films Release.

Boyhood opens with the beautiful young face of Mason as he lies on an impossibly green lawn, thoughtfully scanning the skies overhead. He makes a discovery that he reports to his mom with assured authority: “If you flick a rock into the air just right, it will turn into a wasp.” Taking care not to tread on her son’s fertile imagination, Mom simply says, “That’s cool.” And so we have Mason, the stargazer who forgets his homework and stares out the classroom window rather than pay attention to his teacher. We track this soft-spoken dreamer over time, his budding intelligence and wry humor becoming more evident as he matures.

Mason’s polar opposite and chief tormentor is his extroverted 9-year-old sister Samantha. We first discover her as she corners her poor brother with her outrageous mimicry of Britney Spears’ performance in the music video of “Oops, I Did It Again.” As Samantha matures, she develops into the prototypical scornful, argumentative teen, her need for peer popularity trumping her commitment to family. But no matter her vociferous objections, she ultimately remains loyal to her mother and Mason.

The most dramatic scenes address the siblings’ valiant single mom (beautifully, bravely played by Arquette) as she repeatedly struggles and fails to find a suitable mate and father for her kids. Initially somewhat passive with her new lovers, when pushed, she turns into a feral Mama Bear, rescuing her children from a string of flawed mates who engage in bullying children when they’re not drinking themselves into assorted degrees of alcoholic stupors. Ironically, the kids’ one great father figure is their own dad (Hawke), who initially fled to Alaska for a few years prior to reentering his kids’ lives as the super-parent he yearned to be. It’s a heartbreak that no matter how hard he tries, no matter how much he wants to make up for past mistakes, his ex-wife can’t see him as anything but the itinerant loser who she kicked out of the house years ago.

(l to r) Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and Mason (Ellar Coltrane), age 9. Courtesy of Matt Lankes. An IFC Films Release.

With this performance, Hawke single-handedly elevates the film to a whole other plane. While his character profoundly embraces his role as the children’s father — turning as many moments as he can into life lessons for Samantha and Mason — Hawke brings a certain lightness of heart and an ease to this father who joyously embraces whatever span of time he gets to spend with his beloved kids. Though the children are reticent at first, their burgeoning love and appreciation of their dad makes the movie all the more stirring.

The scope and demand of Boyhood seems nearly inconceivable. The task of convincing a cast into gathering for character discussions, rehearsal and a 3-to-4 day shoot every year for 12 years appears all but Herculean. Never mind the busy schedules of veteran actors Hawke and Arquette; how could Linklater have foreseen that the 6-year-old Coltrane would be able to step up to this prodigious challenge? (Per Coltrane: “12 years was already twice my lifetime at the point when we started.”) Even more daunting was the concept that Coltrane would evolve into an actor strong enough to carry the role of protagonist throughout, from inception to the final scene that was lying in wait over a decade down the road.

Coltrane did it. The principal cast did it. Linklater did it. And the end result is an achievement of groundbreaking proportions.

Boyhood is available now on iTunes

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Rating on a scale of 5 “Dazed and Confused” looks into the next 12 years: 4.5

VOD Release Date: January 6, 2015
Written and Directed by: Richard Linklater
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke
Rating: R
Running Time: 165 minutes

Here’s the trailer:

About Kimberly Gadette

Film critic Kimberly Gadette, born and raised in movie-centric L.A., believes celluloid may very well be a part of her DNA. Having received her BA and MFA from UCLA's School of Theater, Film & Television, she spent many of her formative years as an actress (film, tv, commercials, stage) before she literally changed perspective, finding a whole new POV from the other side of the camera. You can find her last 500+ reviews on Rotten Tomatoes (www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/kimberly-gadette/). Other than taking the occasional side trip to Cannes or Sundance, you can find her at the movies ... sitting in the dark as usual.

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