Saturday, August 16, 2014


In the summer of 2002, Richard Linklater began one of the most ambitious movies in film history. In his home town of Houston, Texas, Linklater started shooting an unnamed movie starring Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, his own young daughter Lorelei Linklater, and then 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane. Each year for the next 12 years he got the cast and crew back together for a handful of shooting days to tell the story of the boyhood of Coltrane's character Mason, from the ages of 6 to 18. And that's what we get, following Mason from 1st grade into his first days as a college freshman. I don't know if it's the best movie of Linklater's underappreciated career, but it seems from the media attention like it will become his signature piece. Boyhood is being hailed by most as a masterpiece, one of the great movies of the decade or of all time, and currently has an absurd 99% approval rating on the critical aggregate site

We first see Mason laying in the grass outside his elementary school looking up at the beautiful blue sky. We follow him as his mom Olivia (Arquette) picks him up and they drive home, while mom complains that his teacher told him Mason hadn't been turning in his homework and had broken the pencil sharpener. Mason counters that the teacher never asked for the homework, so he didn't know to turn it in. And he was just trying to sharpen rocks to add to his arrowhead collection, if it could sharpen pencils, why not rocks? We later see Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) fight in the back seat, fight at the table, and even see Sam tell her dad Mason Sr. (Hawke) that she was sorry their weekend had to be ruined because Mason Jr. had to be there. As the kids grow up they move around a lot, mom goes through a couple of marriages, eventually Sam gets to an age where she'd rather go to a party than go camping with dad and brother. This particularly leads to some hilariously awkward exchanges with then 15-year-old Sam about sex, and 12-year-old Mason about dad's girlfriends. But dad and Mason also bond over s'mores, and Star Wars, swimming and music as well.

The movie is full of smaller moments like this. In fact, it's almost only made up of moments like this. During its 164 minute epic length run time, Linklater gives us a series of life moments. They're not all big speeches or scary incidents. Sure, there are talks about the nature of life and thoughts on the magic all around us in our world, as well as fights and drunken step fathers and all that, but nothing is played to the back of the room. It's all very intimate and insular to Mason's life. After all, life isn't made up of the big moments, but of a series of small moments with occasional spikes in emotion. As I was watching, like Olivia, I expected more, I expected better, I expected bigger. It wasn't until the end credits rolled that I really understood what it was I'd just watched, which was a truly extraordinary movie. I realized how many times Linklater and his cast, especially his two still growing stars, could've stepped wrong and didn't. Could've hit false notes and didn't. Could've gone for the big Oscar moments, but didn't. Linklater doesn't even give us milestone markers like "1 year later" or "age 14" or whatever, and the movie is better off for it. We realize we're in different times through changed hair cuts or subtle signs of growth (Samantha's braces at one point), and it was startlingly fascinating to see both the kids and adults grow older over the course of the movie.

The acting all around is simply superb. Ethan Hawke, working with Linklater on their 8th collaboration, is terrific as the semi-flaky dad who grows from having his kids put Obama signs in peoples yards to marrying a woman whose family give Mason a Bible with his name on it and a shotgun for his 15th birthday. Linklater doesn't make fun of these conservative folks either. When the old man brings out a shotgun, my theater certainly had a huge laugh, but we then see the old man (and Hawke) teaching the kids how to be safe, and to shoot, something which both kids obviously have fun doing. Patricia Arquette can be a tremendous actress when given the right material (Scorsese's Bringing Out the Dead immediately comes to mind), and here she has the best role she's ever had, bringing warmth, love, intelligence, emotion, and even believably having truly shitty taste in husbands, except for the one she had kids with. And although star Ellar Coltrane is getting the most headlines, and he's terrific, he has a natural ease onscreen and wonderful chemistry with each and every one of his co-stars. I can't let this review go by without mentioning how terrific I thought Lorelei Linklater was as Samantha. From a child singing Britney Spears songs to annoy her brother, to a young adult complaining that she won't be eating lunch because the peach schnapps flowed a little too easily last night. It's great, un-showy acting from everyone.

A central idea like this isn't as unique as you might think. The famous British Up documentary series has followed a group of 14 people every 7 years starting in 1964's 7 Up, with 56 Up being released in 2012. Legendary French filmmaker Francois Truffaut did a series of 5 films based on the character Antoine Doinel, from 1959's 400 Blows to 1979's Love on the Run, each time played by actor Jean-Pierre Leaud. And there's also Satyajit Ray's famous Apu Trilogy, though that followed a characters growth played by different actors in each movie. There's even Linklater's own Before Trilogy, with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as young intellectuals falling in love and us following them on just a few brief times over 1995's Before Sunrise, 2004's Before Sunset, and 2013's Before Midnight. But we've never seen a movie like Boyhood where the aging and growing up over 12 years is all done right before our eyes in a single movie with the same actors. Because of labor restrictions, you can't sign a contract for more than 7 years, so there were no contracts in this movie. Ellar Coltrane or his parents could've just decided they didn't want to participate anymore and quit. Richard Linklater has said this was simply a risk he had to take to do the movie he wanted. Lorelei Linklater has said she lost interest in the middle years of filming and only continued because her dad was the director, before regaining her enthusiasm over the final years. Richard Linklater even said he had talks with Ethan Hawke that if he died during the 12 years, Hawke would've taken over as director and finished the project.
I've been saying for years that Richard Linklater is one of the great American filmmakers working right now. From his meandering first film Slacker, which was a seismic shift in American independent cinema, often pointed to as the leader of the 90's indie movement, to his follow up Dazed and Confused to Hollywood movies like School of Rock or experimental movies like Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. And he's always had a way with actors. Jack Black should have an Oscar on his shelf for the work he did in 2011's Bernie, which also was one of the shifts in Matthew McConaughey's career towards acting respectability. Linklater has now made what will likely mark his career as THE Linklater movie. Although I'm probably more partial to the Before movies and Dazed and Confused, Boyhood is certainly a master at work again and I'll be extraordinarily surprised if it's not one of the 2 or 3 best movies of 2014.