Saturday, July 12, 2014

Review: "Boyhood"

Director: Richard Linklater
Runtime: 166 minutes

The late Roger Ebert once remarked that "No good movie is too long, and no bad movie is short enough." Richard Linklater's long-gestating Boyhood is stunning evidence in favor of this idea. The story is limited (a boy and his family grow and change), yet Linklater's three hour opus is so vibrant that it could have gone on for much longer. Boyhood is epic in the time it covers, yet still incomplete in the best sense. Mr. Linklater isn't necessarily bringing anything new to the table in regards to what his latest film says. Instead, he has opted to capture it all with astounding thoroughness. Boyhood started as an experiment. Now, after over a decade, it has emerged as a triumph.

What's truly staggering is how much Linklater managed to accomplish. Though production ran on and off for 12 years, there were only 39 days of actual shooting. For all of the advances in filmmaking technology that took place, it's remarkable how cohesive the whole effort turned out. Rather than constantly call attention to the experimental nature of the production, Linklater masterfully refrains from showing off. As young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) ages from six to 18, the changes feel appropriately gradual. Jumps forward in time aren't handled as major events or shifts. They exist side by side with other moments, just as life outside of the silver screen does. 

And, despite the title's emphasis on a young boy, Boyhood gives stunning attention to all of its major characters. Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater), are all as richly realized. Though the film concludes with its emphasis firmly on Mason Jr.'s path, the various ups and downs of those around him remain equally vivid. This is Mason's story, but it's also the story of an American family living a messy and modern American life. There are marriages and divorces, first loves and first heartbreaks, and they're all masterfully woven together as part of a wild, ever-expanding tapestry, and scenes as ordinary as brothers and sisters bickering absolutely crackle with life. 

Even when characters are at their lowest points, Linklater maintains a distant, almost academic sort of optimism about the progression of life. Boyhood is ultimately a study of time, which makes the unusual production schedule such an inspired gamble. Small moments stir up feelings of happiness or regret, yet they aren't meant to knock one over with their intensity. Boyhood doesn't build to grand moments. It lets the lives of its characters unfold with a beautiful command of time - cinematic and real - to capture childhood as a simultaneously mundane and epic series of experiences. 

When a movie spends over a decade in production, it's hard not to keep that in mind while watching. And even though Linklater doesn't ram the conceit in the viewer's face, he deserves praise for not trying to completely separate narrative and technique. Each has informed the other, and Linklater's gifts as a writer and director are what enable them to feel so seamless. And, in turn, it's what enables Boyhood to function as such an effortlessly compelling merger of art and life. The visual simplicity is wholly deceptive. This is an epic of both the biggest and smallest nature, one that is both a fully realized journey as well as but the first section of the complexity of life as a whole. Boyhood contains multitudes, and yet in Linklater's hands, feels like it's also just the first chapter in a masterful novel just waiting to be written.

Grade: A

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