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Innovation and realism make 'Boyhood' an instant classic

IFC

By Catherine Sulpizio, Daily Arts Writer
Published August 3, 2014

There are movies you walk out of and carry with you for the rest of the day. Not the movies you probe for plots twists or action sequences or the soundtrack, but the movies you insert yourself into so instinctively that the afterimage of it burns into the sidewalk as you walk home in late summer heat. The joy in reviewing that type of movie is matched only by the uncertainty of where to even begin.

It’s no surprise that Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” strikes such a resonating chord with 18-20 year olds; the novelty of rediscovering Razr phones and “Harry Potter” midnight release parties is the reason a Buzzfeed listicle par excellence called “26 Moments That No ‘90’s Kids Will Ever Get Over” reached 1,729,341 views.

However, “Boyhood” reaches far beyond being an extended scrapbook for millenials. The “gimmick” (Linklater shot the film in week-long intervals over twelve years with the same core cast) isn’t a gimmick at all, so much as a brilliant mechanism that plunges you into the bildungsroman of a boy, but also a sister, a mother and a father. We first meet 8-year-old Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) sprawled on the grass staring up at the sky with these huge jewels of eyes, pretty much the only feature that remains unchanged through a slew of haircuts, facial hair, piercings and, of course, pimples. Rhythms of the young family are established in casual early scenes: chatty, vivacious Sam (Lorelei Linklater) who overshadows the quieter Mason as little girls are wont to do; frazzled, beautiful single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette, “True Romance”) and the musician father returning from Alaska, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke, Linklater’s “Before” Trilogy) who first appears in a cool car bearing gifts and a surprise bowling trip.

These slips of narrative, elusive of obvious plots or arcs, replicate life with a breathtaking quality. “Boyhood” doesn’t confine itself to traditional milestones like divorce or a first crush or prom night, instead choosing Mason Jr.’s unique coming-of-age moments. Sometimes the two categories intersect, but more often than not “Boyhood” settles in with the subtler, yet no less impactful, moments that come to define Mason Jr. In an early scene, he’s on the floor watching TV while his mom and her boyfriend navigate a pointed confrontation behind him. That night he lies on his bunk bed as the fallout argument blares through the house, with Olivia exclaiming “I went straight from being someone’s daughter to someone’s mother.” These moments are the confrontations of adulthood every kid is thrown into and changed by, the grownup problems compartmentalized by loving parents until they sneak out on nights when you’re up past time your bedtime. Olivia’s line does double work here — shading her in while sketching out a future too.

One of the movie’s strengths is tracking the periphery of the real world with its real problems as it slowly encroaches on Mason Jr. and Sam. Sam begins as a hyper, intelligent, sassy know-it-all, and slowly recedes into herself as inhibition (sadly) clicks in. And Mason Jr. spends so much a time as wide-eyed absorber and observer that his transition to a skeptical, talkative teenager with a talent for photography feels like the most natural progression. He occupies the outskirts in the beginning of the movie, which gives him a lot to say by the end.

The movie also charts the opposite trajectories of two parents who are no longer together. Watch how Mason Jr. and Mason Sr. circle around each other with their words on a hiking trip. “Is she your girlfriend?” Mason asks his dad about a pretty woman. There’s a noncommittal answer. And then, “Well, have you kissed her?” To which there’s audience laughter but also the recognition of what it means to not have the sturdy certainty of your parents as one unit. And yet, when Mason Sr. volleys the same questions back to his son as they talk about his own maybe-girlfriend, the movie isn’t afraid to suggest the other byproducts of divorce, like that easy camaraderie between two boys navigating romance.

As Mason Sr. grows into a stable force while retaining his younger, “cool dad” charisma, Olivia receives a less forgiving treatment by time. Olivia is mostly saddled with the stressful everyday scenes of raising two kids, which means that gaps in her competency are brought to the forefront. Some scenes provoke visceral anger, like her marriage to not one, but two alcoholics; and a scene where she leaves her children briefly after the first, Bill (Marco Perella “A Scanner Darkly”) drunkenly throws a glass at Mason Jr. is devastating to watch. In fairness, she comes back with a friend to take the kids, yet the movie has just conveyed the intense vulnerability of Mason Jr. and Sam alone with a violent drunk. I struggled later with that problem and I realized “Boyhood” truthfully — and uncomfortably — conveys the unfair judgment the primary parent often gets from their kids, delegated to ugly parts of parenting while the other parent gets to become a weekend escape/venting board for the kids. Mason Sr., as wonderful and wise of a character he is, occupies a slighter parental role than Olivia, so the movie’s idealization of him runs parallel to Mason Jr.’s own perception of him.

More than other Texas coming of age stories (“Hellion” and “Tree of Life”), “Boyhood” is more concerned with characterizing the specific time periods than using the location’s mythic backdrop. The references are there to contour the characters within their current zeitgeist—show how invasive some moments are (technology’s pervasive creep into all cracks of personal lives) and how others are destined live in the background noise of television for certain age groups (Blackwater shootings in Baghdad). And it’s remarkable how Linklater was pinpointing and filming these social currents as they were happening, without the benefit of historical reflection.

“Boyhood’s” ambitious scope is undeniably rewarded. It’s a portrait of a family in motion, and it captures all the messy, ambiguous emotion that comes with it. More than that, it taps into a very poignant knot of emotion within the viewer. After all, how many movies have so artfully grappled with the persistent wash of time (twelve real years) in just two hours and 40 minutes?


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