A lot of great films have used nifty storytelling devices to deal with what it means to grow up.
It's nothing new: Michael Apted's “Up” documentary series, for example, chronicled a group of British schoolchildren through adolescence and into adulthood, catching up with them every seven years. And director François Truffaut documented 20 years in the life of actor Jean-Pierre Léaud, who played Truffaut's alter ego Antoine Doinel in five films, beginning when he was 14 in the 1958 landmark “The 400 Blows.”
But writer-director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “School of Rock”) found a new spin on the formula, taking 12 years to tell the story of a precocious kid and his non-traditional family in a single film. The result is “Boyhood,” which finally reached Spokane's AMC Theatre today following a successful limited release.
There are still a few months left in the movie-going year, but I'm calling it now: This is the best movie of 2014. I doubt I will see anything better. Below is my review of the film, which I recorded for Spokane Public Radio - it could have easily been twice as long:
The first time we see Mason, he’s sprawled on his back on a lawn in his Texas suburb looking up at the sky. He’s five or six years old, that age when you first become aware of and start to question your surroundings, when you begin paying attention to the confusing and seemingly contradictory constraints of the adult world and discover your own way of interpreting the universe. 164 minutes later, Mason is 18, and it’s his first day of college. He’s hiked to a vista near the university with a new group of friends, and he sits on a rock as the sun sets, infinite possibilities stretching out before him.
These moments bookend Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” a film of quiet transcendence and aching authenticity, perhaps the best movie I’ve ever seen about what it’s really like to grow up. Any discussion of the film must begin with the way it was made. From the summer of 2002 to the summer of 2013, Linklater assembled his cast for several weeks each year and sculpted scenes with them, resulting in a series of snapshots documenting 12 years in the lives of its characters. The effect is unlike anything we’ve seen in a single film before: We watch the characters age and develop in real time, and the world around them follows suit.
Linklater has always been fascinated by the march of time, from his early day-in-the-life tableaux “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” to his superb “Before” series, which has charted a relationship over the course of three films and 18 years. “Boyhood” is his most audacious narrative experiment yet, and it’s tempting to praise the movie simply for that audacity. It’s actually something I’ve been wrestling with since seeing the film: Is my response to the movie founded on its emotional impact, or is it simply knee-jerk amazement at Linklater effortlessly pulling off such a tricky landing?
But the truth is the film’s methods simply can’t be separated from its content. This is a film about age, about the passing of time, about the formative years when our personalities and senses of humor and moral compasses come into focus, how our bodies and minds develop while our fundamental essences remain more or less the same. To see a process so nebulous and complex explored with near-documentary realism is an awe-inspiring experience. The movie works simultaneously on two equally fascinating levels – Mason grows up, but so does Ellar Coltrane, the actor playing him –and at times we catch the film functioning as a record of its own making.
As in life, there’s no clear-cut story in “Boyhood.” It sort of separates itself into chapters, though Linklater avoids the use of title cards or music cues, so that there are instances when we notice Mason has aged in a year from one shot to the next. Mason’s parents are divorced, and he and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) live with their mother (Patricia Arquette), a hardworking woman who goes from one troubled romantic relationship to another. Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke) isn’t always around, but when he does show up (in a black muscle car he’s no doubt been driving since high school), he urges his kids to think for themselves and to take risks, perhaps to prevent them from emulating him.
Most coming-of-age tales hit all the prominent dramatic signposts of adolescence, but “Boyhood” does the opposite. We don’t see Mason’s first kiss, the first time he gets drunk or the moment he loses his virginity, but Linklater takes the time to show him choking down lukewarm beer with his friends in the basement of an unfinished house, watching his parents fight from a closed upstairs window, attending a release party for one of the “Harry Potter” novels. What’s onscreen is as telling as what’s left off, and Linklater has perfectly captured the curious nature of memory, how our minds often favor minor details over seemingly significant ones.
Linklater is one of the best, most fearless American filmmakers working today, and yet he’s rarely mentioned in the same breath as the revered likes of Paul Thomas Anderson or Joel and Ethan Coen (he deserves to be). Perhaps it’s because his movies rarely announce their greatness: Like their creator, they tend toward modesty and contemplation and favor dialogue over action; they’re unassuming portraits of wallflowers, intellectuals and outcasts that are almost romantic in their plainness.
I first saw “Boyhood” in May at a sold-out screening at the Seattle International Film Festival, where it was awarded Best Film, Best Director and Best Actress for Arquette. Crammed in the corner of the very back row of the Harvard Exit Theatre, I knew then that I was witnessing something special. Despite its central conceit, this isn’t the kind of film that sets out to astonish you. It is not an epic. It is, for all the grandeur surrounding its premise and the scope of its production, a small, intimate movie.
And yet its smallness is precisely what makes it so extraordinary. “Boyhood” doesn’t contain many epiphanies. It is about transformation, but it is not particularly interested in transforming us. It shows us life as it really is, which is often shapeless, pointless, meandering, inconsequential. We can, however, find profundity and tremendous beauty in that meandering, and so we do in this film, which rewards us in ways that movies rarely ever do.
The trailer for “Boyhood”: