Sundance Review: Boyhood

If there’s one thing that unifies all of Richard Linklater’s films, it would probably be the way they strive for a sense of quotidian reality, no matter what the subject. Even in his conventional films like The School of Rock  or A Scanner Darkly  he presents ridiculous moments in a manner believable enough that you’re more than willing to roll with them (see: the scene in School of Rock  where Jack Black is first teaching the kids to rock out). It’s especially telling that in an era when documentaries like Exit Through the Gift Shop  and Stories We Tell  blur the line between fact and fiction, Linklater’s docucomedy Bernie  pulls the opposite trick: it presents itself as a mockumentary, only to reveal at the end that, no, all but a couple of those talking heads were real Carthage residents, the same ones that interacted in a scene with movie star Jack Black.

This ambition reaches its peak in his new coming-of-age epic Boyhood, which might be Linklater’s magnum opus. At 161 minutes it’s his longest feature film by nearly 50 minutes, but despite that it might rival Slacker  as his most plotless venture ever. And that’s a good thing! Filming over the course of 12 years, Linklater takes what he’s been trying with his Before  series (dropping in on a relationship between two people every 9 years) and condenses it into a single movie and turns the focus towards a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he goes through adolescence. The end result is simultaneously modest and yet the most complete coming-of-age story I’ve ever seen.

It begins in 2002, when we’re introduced to Mason, as well as his single mom (Patricia Arquette) and his older sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater). Right from the get-go we see that Linklater has a handle on how children operate, in all their awkward, precocious, grating glory (I imagine some will be annoyed by Sam’s early antics, but anyone who’s had a sister will relate immediately), a handle he never loses over the course of the next 12 years. The two child actors are more than up to the task – Coltrane commands the screen with an emotional honesty through every era, and Linklater is equally impressive even if she fades into the periphery of the film as it goes along. The opening section also sets the tone for most of what is to follow, which is a mixture of defining, life-changing moments (your first big move) with more relaxed, down-to-earth moments, like a visit from Mason’s mostly-absent father (Ethan Hawke) where he takes them bowling and lectures Mason and his sister on why the Iraq War is bad news.

That last detail establishes one of Boyhood‘s greatest strengths: the way it timestamps every section of the film in a manner that gets the audience up to speed without being cloying. Films that cover long periods of time can often try too hard at this (see: everything in Lee Daniels’ The Butler), but Boyhood  displays a solid grasp of the role pop culture plays in a young child growing up, and is smart in organically integrating it into every section of the film, and because they’re being filmed in the moment they really feel authentic. The reference points range from obvious (the Harry Potter  books play a significant role, as they would in any Millennial’s childhood) to more subtle (Mason is greeted at a new school by a kid with a friendly “welcome to the suck,” a reference to the now-forgotten Jarhead’s marketing campaign).

But to return to that Iraq War discussion, it does serve a purpose beyond just letting us know that we’re in 2003. The film does a phenomenal job of boiling down adolescence to the bare essentials: the moments that are literally significant (making friends, emotional and physical abuse – more on that in a moment) and those that are more subtly important. Nothing groundbreaking happens in that discussion, but it helps give an idea of how conversations form a person’s outlook on the world. The film is filled with these kinds of conversations (like at a high school party where Mason and a cute girl get as philosophical as 16-year-olds realistically can), ones that are simple and basic, yet so filled with truth it’s constantly compelling.

One inadvertent side effect of these wonderful quiet moments is that they make the louder, more dramatic moments stand out, and make you wonder if Linklater just wanted to throw in some drama for the sake of it. This is especially evident in an earlier episode in the film, where Mason’s mom gets involved with a man who turns out to be emotionally and physically abusive in an increasingly monstrous manner, and the film for a few moments seems to threaten to turn into a melodramatic kidnapping film. However, the episode is just long enough to be emotionally effective – I had a sick feeling in my stomach during these scenes in a way that most horror movies would envy – without overtaking the film (now would be a good time to applaud the editing work of Sandra Adair, which effortlessly takes us from year to year without feeling jumpy or too episodic).

And really, isn’t that the way life tends to work out anyway? We all have extended episodes of our lives that when we look back seem ridiculous and insane and as if they’ll never end. And that’s probably the finest quality of this film: it captures nearly every aspect of growing up, with such authentic whiplash that you’ll find yourself disgusted by a sick act of emotional abuse against Mason, and then moved a minute later by how that inspires an act of kindness from the cute girl in his class. But I feel like I’ve already spoiled too much. Much like real life, it’s best to just partake in Boyhood  and see what painful, wonderful places it takes you.