Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, released in 2014, quickly drew notice for the fact that filming began back in 2002. Over the course of 12 years, Linklater gathered together the same cast and crew every year to film a new short episode in the life of its young central character (the movie was at one point to be titled 12 Years, until a certain Best Picture winner scuttled that idea). As the story unfolds, we witness the physical and emotional growth of the cast in an unprecedented cinematic achievement. The film features Ellar Coltrane as the main boy, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as his older sister, Ethan Hawke as his dad, and Patricia Arquette as his mom in the role that won her an Oscar.

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The film begins when Mason Evans is six years old and living in small-town Texas with his older sister Samantha and his mother Olivia, who’s divorced from their father, Mason, Sr. It seems there’s a lot of friction between Olivia and her new boyfriend over her being a single mom, and due to financial hardship, she soon moves with the kids to Houston so that she can finish her degree and get a better paying job.

Boyhood (2014)

The next year, the kids visit with their father, who’s back in Texas after spending time in Alaska in an (unsuccessful) attempt to become a musician. Meanwhile, Mason sees Olivia flirt with her professor (Marco Perella), and before we know it, the two are married. Joining his children with hers, the new family dynamic soon becomes toxic as he slips into alcoholism and abuse. After several episodes of physical violence, Olivia escapes with Mason and Sam and moves in with a friend.

Mason Sr. bonds further with his two kids as they age into their preteen years. He discusses all sorts of things with them, including dating, sports, sex, politics, and pop culture (both Masons are in agreement that there will never be another Star Wars film). Samantha spends less time with her father as she grows up and becomes her own person, but he still comes around to go on camping trips with Mason.

Boyhood (2014)

Mason enters his teenage years and calmly rebels. He drinks a little and smokes a little weed, but is still honest and caring towards his parents. His photography teacher tells him to take school seriously, because in spite of his lack of motivation, he does have talent.

Boyhood (2014)

Mason soon gets a new younger brother when his dad gets remarried to a woman from a conservative Christian upbringing. Meanwhile, the third time turns out not to be the charm for Mason’s mom, whose new husband also becomes an abusive, alcoholic jerk.

Finally, we see Mason graduate from high school and make plans to go away to college in Alpine, Texas. And while this leaves his mother alone and depressed, he finally begins to feel like he can find people to relate to outside of his family.

Boyhood (2014)

Boyhood is a remarkable time capsule for those growing up in or reaching adulthood during the same time period as Mason. Many will recognize the popular toys, songs, films, and other events of 2002-2014 that are depicted in the film. Linklater seems to have had a knack for picking the pop culture fads and trendy gadgets that would most quickly date each segment: Harry Potter, the Game Boy Advance, candy-coated iMacs, flip phones, Tamagotchis, and High School Musical all get referenced, along with the songs of Britney Spears and trendy stuffed owls.

Boyhood (2014)

While these things are all fun to see, the real beauty of this film is its emotional impact. Each scene is a fragment in a boy’s life, yet many of these shards of truth will have deep resonance with viewers. Watching this film, one can’t help but recall having difficulties with a stepparent or a spouse, or how it felt to leave behind your parent(s) while packing for college, or having to say goodbye to your child. Each scene is perfectly crafted as a slice of life, and while some may feel disappointed that there’s no strong overriding plot or theme, that’s really not the point of the film. The movie is more like stopping by every so often to get a glimpse at how someone is growing up, and thus feel some kinship with the events of your own childhood.

Of course, no review can go without mentioning the incredible feat of filmmaking on display here. While the finished product has many aspects that are a bit rough and awkward, the sheer dedication and talent involved in keeping this project afloat is mindboggling.

It was a 12 year production that required continuity in both creativity and talent, and for the most part, they pulled it off. Characters stay consistent, and the whole film maintains the same visual and thematic tone throughout. I think the filmmakers got extremely lucky that no important cast members decided to drop out during the course of filming. While minor characters could be easily written out, it would have been a major blow if Coltrane had suddenly had a spiritual awakening and decided to move to Africa.

The acting is mostly solid, and Arquette’s Academy Award is well deserved, but some of the side players are noticeably awful. Part of the problem is how much the film relies on kid actors. Kids are generally terrible actors, and it’s no different here. The bullying scene where Mason is confronted in the bathroom should be tense and upsetting. After all, it’s a child getting bullied in a new school. However, the two bullies are so amateurish in their line deliveries that the scene becomes hilariously awkward. Okay, so I’m making fun of child actors, but it’s not my fault they ruined an otherwise crucial scene.

Boyhood (2014)

While we can pardon bad performances from the kids, there’s no excuse for the actor (Perella) who plays Drunk Stepfather #1. Honestly, I’m conflicted as to whether he’s a bad actor or simply a badly written character, but his “alcoholic and abusive stepfather” changes from menacing to cartoonish in the blink of an eye. I’m just going to chalk this one up to uneven directing. Okay, and maybe piss-poor acting, too.

Boyhood (2014)

Another fault of the film, and this is crucial for its re-watchability, is its lack of finesse. Yes, it’s a film shot over 12 years, and it’s incredible that they pulled it off successfully. But the film often feels tepid and limited in scope. The only cinematic shot comes towards the end, as Mason is driving to college. Every other scene has the subtlety and panache of a soap opera, and at three hours long, that diminishes a lot of the potential impact. Scenes often blend together because the camera work is so drab, and while the overall film works, one can only wish that Linklater added something more to the experience. Of course, Linklater has always been a more subdued filmmaker, but most of his films aren’t three hours long.

Boyhood (2014)

Overall, Boyhood is a tremendous achievement, and while a lot of people will see it due to all the awards and accolades it received in the last year, this is primarily a film made by a cinephile for cinephiles. It offers little in the way of straightforward entertainment, but if you’re ready to immerse yourself in a truly unique three-hour experience, then Boyhood offers enough to reflect on to make it worthwhile.

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  • This is a terrible movie. I do not understand its appeal or the emotional reactions people have had to it on any level.

    I still do not understand how this movie is an achievement. So he has to set aside a weekend each year to film Ethan Hawke talking to two children in a bowling alley. How is that difficult?

    You might reply with, “Well, if the kids don’t want to do it, then you couldn’t film anymore.”

    To which I reply, “Then he would have just made a movie out of the footage he had. It is pretty clear he did not write the movie a head of time because there was no way to know what events would be happening in the world, and since none of the years reference previous years’ events directly there was no foreshadowing of events.”

    Just because something is done over a long period of time does not mean it was good or worth the time it took to make, and the “ambition” that this movie took is the only thing I see consistently referenced as elevating it above other films.

    • mamba

      Isn’t this movie basically the equivalent of watching 12 years worth of family home movie slides “condensed” into a 2-3 hour stretch?

      Even the movie trailer and description screamed “incredible tedium”. My wife joked that if she wanted to watch boring people grow up, she’d just look out the back window at the local school, and pick a random kid.

      Movies are supposed to be escapist, right? Still fun? Educational? An adventure at a bare minimum??? At least Mano’s had a plot!!!

  • I loved this movie as a kid who grew up over the exact same period as Mason, but I have this frustration with it in that Mason is literally the least interesting protagonist it could have. He has no personality besides being mildly pretentious in his later years, and no personal obstacles to either overcome or define himself against. His discovery of photography felt too romanticised as well, and I think he’s really just Linklater’s author surrogate, letting him live vicariously through his cinematic avatar. For all it’s really impressive cinematic achievements, aside from its great final scenes with Mason and his mum it’s three hours of Linklater masturbating to himself.

    • I thought something similar during the movie, “at least I had a personality when I was growing up.”

  • MichaelANovelli

    I dunno, you make parts of this sound eerily reminiscent of The Brown Bunny… 🙁

    • E.Buzz Miller

      You’ll love the part where Mason’s sister smokes crack and goes down on Vincent Gallo.

  • Jenny Mingus

    I saw this movie. It was interesting watching the passage of time and seeing this kid grow up, but on the whole, I can’t think of a reason to see the movie again. Once you get passed the novelty of the experience…

  • tMoD

    I thought this movie was waaaay overrated. It IS an interesting and unique cinematic experience. But once you get past the novelty of it being filmed over 12 years with the same actors it is very slow, dull and episodic. There is no finesse, or pizzazz in any of the shots. The camera is very static and captures the actors in odd framing moments. As referenced by another viewer, they remind one of home movies. There is an amateurish feel to the whole thing. It has some merits. There is something very genuine and real about what we are witnessing on the screen. It does remind one of one’s own youth, and several key scenes will make you nod in recognition. But at almost 3 hours, it gets tedious around the 90 minute mark. It could have easily been paired down to 90 to 120 minutes without losing anything.

    Honestly, this is another example of movies getting nominated because of a talent’s PAST work, not the current role or movie they are being honored for. Richard Linklater has made some interesting and compelling movies in the past, and I believe that is the only reason this movie got nominated.

    • tcorp

      tMod, eh? Are you my archnemesis?

  • KLLRFRST

    So basically, some people are losing their shit over this simply because it was filmed over 12 years instead of 12 weeks?

    If those same folks ever discover the “7 UP” series, their heads will explode.