Editor’s note: As one of the most anticipated releases of the year, “Boyhood” has drawn interest from many of our writers. As such, this article will collect a stream of content on the film – reviews, essays, selections from Q&A’s with Richard Linklater, and other general reactions. The content is ordered from favorable to unfavorable. Seen the film? Join in the discussion! Leave a comment and it may get added to the master article.
Review by Taylor Sinople
Capturing much of the experience of childhood, but using scenes that work better independently than as building blocks towards a definitive piece, “Boyhood” is nonetheless one of the most ambitious projects in the history of cinema.
It may take a few tries for “Boyhood” to fully hit you. It took two for me.
In 2002, IFC Films agreed to provide writer-director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused,” “Bernie”) with a modest, yearly budget to shoot a spectacularly unique project. The idea was to capture a coming-of-age story like never before: by actually allowing the actors to grow up. Twelve years ago, Linklater began production with a small cast fronted by Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater, and a non-professional seven-year-old actor named Ellar Coltrane. Then they waited. Each year, Linklater and camp reconnected for a week or two to shoot the next scene. The director calls it a ”collaboration with an unknown future.” By the time production ceases in 2013, Coltrane (who plays seven-year-old Mason in the opening of the film) is eighteen years old. You can imagine the anticipation built up for followers of Linklater. So when I saw “Boyhood” for the first time, it was a three-hour blur of rapidly colliding expectations and realities. And the reality wasn’t what I had expected.
While there’s always an effort by critics to go into each movie without preconceptions, this is occasionally all but impossible. In 2013 it was with films such as “Gravity” and “The Wolf of Wall Street.” Later this year, it’ll be Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Inherent Vice,” and Christopher Nolan’s “Interstellar.” Linklater did it to us back-to-back with 2013’s “Before Midnight” – the third film in a series that began eighteen years ago with “Before Sunrise,” and now 2014’s “Boyhood.”
My initial experience with “Boyhood” was underwhelming, due to two issues with the way I wanted the film to work. First, due to early talk hailing the film as a masterpiece end-all to the coming of age genre, I expected a certain universality to the story. Read around on the film, this is clearly something that is hitting many, many people in highly personal ways. Parents are considering the fleeting nature of their children’s lives, while younger generations are reflecting on their own youths. But there’s a specificity to the story that acts a barrier to relating to it. My childhood was nothing like Mason’s. As he grows up, he’s often relocated to new Texan towns and endures “a parade of drunken assholes” in place for his biological father (Ethan Hawke) – a once-every-other-weekend dad.
Fascinating to watch, certainly, but I’ve connected on a deeper level to many other films in the genre – even Linklater’s own. Without this direct connection, “Boyhood” instead offered me a chance to access the small, profound moments that define a person’s life. But this is what Terrence Malick would do. Where Malick would use the camera as an omniscient device, Linklater uses it as a tool for documentation. So we don’t see the moments that end up sculpting who Mason becomes, we see his genuine memories – the ones that, whether as part of a traditional mile-stone or not, stand out. This can be tough, because certain movie scenes (many that Linklater avoids here) are cliches for a reason — they really are important moments in adolescence.
The memories that are chosen are fairly varied in quality. There are a couple of weak links here, and a disappointing lack of meaningful character development. There is a trade that took place – by extending the schedule to many years and writing the film in pieces, “Boyhood” loses the payoff of a well-crafted film. It can hardly set up its own finale when it’s being constructed in real time. So there are numerous subplot-starters that don’t evolve into anything interesting, or are forgotten entirely.
The opening shot of Mason laying in the grass while Coldplay’s “Yellow” plays, though, is one of the very best moments I’ve had at the cinema this year. I remember being seven, looking up at the clouds. There’s a profundity to youth in the absence of responsibility that we spend the rest of our adult lives chasing. In three hours, that same seven year old will be leaving for college as an adult. And that’s it, boyhood, that’s the whole damn thing. We’re children, and then we’re not. Years pass, but we sum them up in single sentences. “When I was eight I loved Star Wars,” and “when I was thirteen I shared my first kiss.” What would your childhood look like in three hours?
It’s amazing that across more than a decade, Linklater is able to stich together a cohesive project. The years pass scene to scene, noted through a change in haircut or the absence or addition of a character. There are no title cards and no narration – it is an uninterrupted lifestream. Pop culture plays an important time-tracking role throughout the film, and Linklater proves to have a great sense for what will stick around through the years and become a well-known reference. Anyone born in the early 90’s will be able to follow right along as Mason stays up all night playing Halo, attends a Harry Potter midnight book release event, and complains about the all-controlling power of Facebook.
“Boyhood” is also a great way to enter the Ethan Hawke time machine – an actor who seems to have no problem participating in some seriously bad movies, but continues to do strong, strong work with Linklater. As the occasional-dad with a cool car, he transcends the typical role to offer Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), with genuine wisdom and a down-to-earth, caring presence in their lives. “Boyhood” is about parenthood, too. Particularly Mason’s mother (Arquette, the Oscar-worthy, stand-out performer of the bunch), who does just as much growing and learning as Mason in these twelve years. In fact, because Linklater circles back around to early-life themes already explored in “Waking Life” and “Dazed and Confused,” I found “Boyhood” to be less revelatory about childhood than “Before Midnight” was to adulthood.
Linklater should be one of our most treasured writers – he’s showing us our own lives with honesty, and offering thought on human nature that adds to our worldview. Projected ticket sales just aren’t part of the equation in his walk-and-talk pieces. In one of the best scenes of “Boyhood,” Mason’s photography teacher gives him a hard lesson about life and art: “any dipshit can take pictures. Art: that’s special.” It may not be the defining film of the year, or Linklater’s career, but has anyone put in this kind of passion and sympathy into telling the story of growing up? I like “Boyhood” a lot right now. I hope to love it in ten years, though. Because a film about the passing of time deserves to be revisited as time passes. This one is going to depend on where you are and who are you, and while it didn’t entirely work for me, I can admire the artfulness of a film that allows for these varied reactions. For now, “Boyhood” isn’t moving so much as a wonderful feat of production.
Review by Josef Rodriguez
Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is a grandiose, yet intimate statement on the nature of humanity, even if its epic runtime doesn’t make time for much character development.
It would be difficult to dispute that Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” which was filmed over a 12-year period from 2002 to 2014, is not a culmination of the director’s career thus far. For more than two decades, Linklater has attempted, and in most cases succeeded, to depict both the banality and beauty of life in all its stages; anyone who’s followed Linklater’s career could have surmised that “Boyhood” was the next step. His films already experimented heavily with the passage of time (see: The Before Trilogy), and his affinity for telling stories about the reality of youth is one that has consistently evolved, often surfacing with more sobering truths than before.
“Boyhood” tells the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a Texas-native who is observed through Linklater’s lens from the ages of 6 to 18. When the film begins, his mother (Patricia Arquette) announces to him and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) that the family is moving to Houston. By the time the film ends, nearly three hours later, Mason is moving away to college and realizing, for the first time, that his life is only just beginning.
Mason’s formative years make up the entirety of Linklater’s film, and they’re grounded in a reality with which everywhere viewer can identify. Between having to endure the challenges of two alcoholic stepfathers, a couple more moves around Texas, and a father (Ethan Hawke) who is trying his best to maintain a healthy relationship with Mason and his sister during their bi-weekly visits, Mason is someone you know: perhaps Mason is you.
As a piece of experimental filmmaking, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” should prove to be the gift that keeps on giving for many years to come. Poster quotes claiming that “Boyhood” is one of the most unique films in cinema history are not far off, and watching Mason literally grow before our eyes is a rewarding experience that is not easily comparable to anything else. As the film’s main subject, Ellar Coltrane gives an understandably uneven performance, one that fluctuates between the effortlessly natural to the temporarily stilted.
Yet, by the time he reaches his teen years, it becomes apparent that Coltrane is no longer playing a character. Linklater would often rewrite certain scenes to mirror what was going on in the actor’s life and seeing both the actor and the character come into his own is one of “Boyhood’s” most rewarding offerings. The unceasing curiosity of Mason’s youth is replaced with the pensive cynicism of any intelligent teenage boy, and Coltrane performs this with an honesty that suggests a similar progression of thought in his own life. Where the film isn’t able to accommodate the actor as much is through Mason’s immediately pre-pubescent years, where he is no longer a toddler but isn’t quite an adolescent. During these years, Mason is introduced to his first stepfather’s addictive and abusive tendencies, and the performance isn’t bad by any means, but Coltrane sometimes looks a little lost in regards to what Mason should be feeling.
However, the standout performance in Linklater’s film comes from Ethan Hawke, who elevates the film to a noticeable degree any time he pulls up to the frame in his GTO. Hawke, who has been one of Linklater’s most frequent collaborators, has an excellent rapport with Coltrane, and is responsible for bringing out the best of the young actor throughout the entire film. While Patricia Arquette is also fantastic as Mason’s mother, the chemistry between the two actors isn’t quite as strong as it is between Hawke and Coltrane, who balance each other out beautifully whenever they share the screen.
Where “Boyhood” fails to measure up to Linklater’s best films is that, although the film was created to resemble reality, it’s never quite as realistic as it wants to be. Linklater has long been a master of creating natural characters who think and talk like real people, so it comes as quite a surprise that “Boyhood” falls short in this regard. There are many scenes in the film where Linklater maintains the uncanny ability to expose the average American life in a legitimately compelling and original way, but there are also certain sequences (like one involving Mason having a sleepover in an abandoned house with his friends) that are so inexplicably awful it’s hard to believe you’re watching the same film.
No film with a runtime as long as “Boyhood’s” is going to be flawless for every second, but the scenes that are bad aren’t so in a way that improves the greater moments. Instead, they drag an otherwise well-crafted story down to a level that just isn’t acceptable for a film that’s already being touted as a masterpiece. Certain subplots are regurgitated tropes that have been executed with far more skill in other movies, and at times it seems like Linklater is hiding behind the conceit of “reality” and the film’s unique structure to allow himself room for an occasionally faulty narrative.
Even worse, “Boyhood” suffers from shallow characterizations that threaten to deflate some of the film’s emotionally potent scenes. Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Mason’s story isn’t given as much screentime as the children of Michael Apted’s “7 Up” series or Truffaut’s “Antoine Doinel” films, but I refuse to believe that Linklater, a master at simple but effective characterization, couldn’t have done something much more interesting with these characters. Regardless of how much time we’ve spent with Mason, the audience is only offered a skin-deep portrait, and the lack of depth makes it easier to poke holes in Linklater’s story, which never escapes the feeling that everything being performed on-screen has been written. The improvisational nature of The Before Trilogy, “Slacker,” and “Dazed and Confused” is not only subdued, it’s entirely absent from the film that needed it most.
“Boyhood” is, despite its many setbacks, still not a bad film. It’s actually a very good one, but one that should be held to a higher standard than most because of the talent involved. I can’t, in good faith, say that “Boyhood” is a masterpiece. Yes, it’s one of Richard Linklater’s most accomplished films, but it’s certainly not his best, and not even his best of the past five years. It’ll be interesting to see the impact that “Boyhood” has on the next generation of filmmakers, but for a film that operates within the simple mantra “life is messy,” somehow “Boyhood” feels meticulously staged.
Review by Tyler Ward
Hype is a funny thing, especially when it comes to movies. Sometimes upcoming films receive so little attention and marketing that nobody goes to see them, no matter how great they are (think Martin Scorsese’s 2011 masterpiece “Hugo”). Other times they receive so much attention and marketing that everybody goes to see them, no matter how bad they are (insert inevitable jab towards Mr. Bay here). And then there are those films that are so highly anticipated and receive such outstanding advance praise that it becomes virtually impossible for them to live up to the expectations set for them, even if they end up being great films. Having just seen Richard Linklater’s monstrously hyped twelve-year epic, “Boyhood,” it pains me to have to place it in that latter category, at least for now.
In all fairness, this is very much an impulse review. I saw the film in a sold out screening and sat in the middle of a crowd that laughed at inappropriate moments and totally ruined the immersion of the experience throughout the film. It’s obvious to me that “Boyhood” is one of those films that should be watched in a quiet setting, preferably alone, where the viewer can allow every word of dialogue to resonate and the film to appeal to his own emotions, without other people around to impose their emotional reactions on him. I also feel as though the film is one which will gain more and different meaning with each subsequent viewing, and that it cannot fairly be assessed after the first watch. For these reasons, I feel that it would be unfair to assign this film a numerical rating after the experience I had with it, and I implore the reader to take both the praise and criticisms I bestow upon “Boyhood” with a grain of salt, as they are subject to change once I revisit the film.
For sure, there are a number of things that Linklater and company accomplish in “Boyhood” that make it a very special experience. First of all, the skill and vision that is required to sew together pieces of a story shot over twelve years into one cohesive “narrative” (a term that must be used loosely when discussing Linklater’s work) is astounding. Our subject, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), literally ages seamlessly, and the story moves from year to year without missing a single beat. Mason is six years old the first time he is seen on screen, lying in the grass in his now-famous pose from the film’s poster. By the time the film ends, he is eighteen years old, and I found myself wondering where the time went, both literally and figuratively. Pushing nearly three hours, the film seems to fly by because compared to the twelve years that are portrayed, 165 minutes seems like a split-second, a snap of the fingers, a blink of the eye. It’s an innovative story-telling technique that worked nearly flawlessly, and it’s arguably the film’s greatest strength.
“Boyhood” is also unique in the sense that, while most coming-of-age films strive for a sort of universal relativity, Linklater seems wholly concerned with simply telling Mason’s specific story, whether it’s ultimately relatable to the viewer or not. The film is more of a character study than it is a nostalgic reflection piece; while music, technology and cultural milestones are most certainly used throughout the film to set the time period in which each event takes place, the film never seems to pander to viewers of a certain generation or background. Paradoxically, this supposed lack of universal relativity actually makes the film more relatable to a larger variety of demographics; no one group of people is singled out. “Boyhood” is the story of one boy, not the story of all boys, and as a result, Mason becomes an individual with whom the audience can empathise, rather than a symbol that only certain viewers can apply to themselves.
While the film succeeds on many levels, “Boyhood” also exhibits significant flaws that simply cannot be overlooked. Many of the satellite characters outside of the core cast are merely caricatures of stereotypes that exist in nearly every coming-of-age film: the alcoholic, abusive stepdad; the returning soldier suffering from PTSD; the eccentric and creepy fast food manager at Mason’s first job; the crazy and free-spirited college roommate. None of these characters feel like real people; they’re almost comically exaggerated, which undermines the emotional impact of some points of the film.
The situation isn’t helped by the casting of these characters, either. Ethan Hawke (channeling a more playful version of Jesse from Linklater’s “Before trilogy”) and Patricia Arquette are excellent as Mason’s parents, and watching Ellar Coltrane mature as an actor as his character matures as a person is one of the greatest spectacles of the film. But Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter), playing Samantha, Mason’s older sister, seems to portray the same character at nineteen years old as she did at seven years old, and much of the supporting cast overacts to the point of taking the viewer out of the film. Of course, Linklater is no stranger to using amateur actors in his films, and with a meager budget, it would have been impossible to cast the calibre of actors needed to do the characters complete justice. The situation is somewhat inevitable and unavoidable, and yet it still lessens the emotional payoff in some parts of a film that is so reliant on evoking a response from the audience, nonetheless.
At the end of the day, “Boyhood” is a good film – a great film, even – that suffers from being far too vaulted as a “masterpiece” prior to its release. I went into the film with a certain set of expectations, and I unfortunately don’t feel like those expectations were satisfied completely. It’s certainly a technical marvel, and it does succeed on a fundamental level, but it also has its flaws. However, having seen the film in a noisy environment which divided my attention, I also feel as though I’m going to have to watch the film again in order to give it a fair assessment. For now, I can only say that “Boyhood” is a complex and interesting film that should be experienced by as many people as possible, because it’s truly unlike any film I’ve ever seen before.
Taylor is a Chicago-based writer and aspiring film historian. He is the editor here at TFP, and has contributed to a number of international publications such as Cinema Scandinavia, PopMatters, and Room 101 Magazine. He can also be found listening to podcasts, researching topics he has little use for, or running after a city bus.
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