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Boyhood movie review: One of the best of the decade


A young boy, no older than 10 or 11, is sucking on a Redskins lolly bar and sitting on tanbark underneath the monkey bars in a small public park. He’s hanging out with three boys older than him — they’re only 14 and 15, but at that age the difference feels like decades — and they’re chewing the fat, talking about TV shows and video games.

The young boy is attempting to impress them, trying to fit in with the cool kids. A group of girls arrive. One of them waves and the girls sit down next to a slide. The ringleader asks the kid sucking on the Redskins: wanna come play spin the bottle?

Sure, the kid says. But when the boys move closer to the girls the kid wimps out. He makes an excuse and walks home. With his hands in his pockets, kicking an acorn down the footpath, he doesn’t feel very cool anymore.

A few years pass. When the same game is suggested by a different crowd, and the kid is a little bit older, he’s ready to play — and he’s keen as punch.

That moment isn’t a scene from writer/director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an ambitious and beautifully realised drama shot with the same cast over 12 years. That kid was me. The movie was my life.

Those moments — the Redskins, the slide, the girls, the acorn — had no obvious psychological impact on me, in fact they disappeared from my mind entirely. It was only when I was watching Boyhood they returned. It felt like the kind of recognition you feel when you discover an old photograph tucked away in a shoebox.

Linklater plays with the audience’s comprehension of time. As the characters age so does the film, and  in an oddly literal way given he sat on footage for over a decade. And given Boyhood’s coming of age subject matter, there’s plenty of logical reasons to explain why the film jogged my memory. But it also speaks to how special this deeply memorable movie is, and the great sensation at the heart of it: the sense audiences may not only share something with it but also feel a claim of ownership.

Boyhood follows the life of Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a bright-eyed tyke into a drug dabbling university student. His estranged parents are played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. The film flows like a non-documentary version of 7Up, without the stop/start time jumps. Rolled into a long but smooth 165-minute running time, the characters age in subtle ways — no thick smears of make-up, no numbers announcing a different year.

Boyhood is many things: mainstream but experimental, subtle but powerful, epic but personal. Ultimately it is a rites of passage story. Some of these rites are distinctly American, like eating at diners, Yankee-style graduation celebrations and the handing down of a family rifle that’s been in the family for generations.

Most, however, are universal. If first loves, break ups, working a menial job for a crappy pay, squabbling with siblings and arguing with parents sounds familiar, that’s kind of the point. We’ve all been there, yet Linklater and his outstanding cast — including the young man at the heart of it, Ellar Coltrane, who audiences will bond with unlike with any other actor –make that familiarity feel fresh and interesting.

When Ethan Hawke reconnects with his kids (Mason and his sister Samantha, played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater) and takes them to a bowling alley, he loses his tempter for frivolous reasons.

“You don’t want bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers!” dad exclaims, imploring the kids not to play the kiddie version of bowling. It’s a moment of dumb intemperance, but it also hints at some of Boyhood core themes: that growing up is an imperfect science and it cannot be rushed.

Hawke’s character casually refers to that moment later — “I’ll get better at the bumpers thing” — making a point that Boyhood isn’t a story about one person growing up. Linklater’s direction is too emotionally intelligent for such a singular focus, too generous with its feelings. Boyhood studies all the primary characters as they evolve and mature.

This heartwarming and complexly layered drama isn’t just one of the best films of the year, but one of the best of the decade, the kind of deeply touching experience that feels like a one-off. Something that can be imitated but never really comes again.

Boyhood‘s most powerful dramatic chunk, which captures Mason’s mother’s second marriage to a domineering shit-head alcoholic, concludes with a faintly haunting lack of closure. There’s an eerie feeling life goes on for everybody, that people we move away from — those who damage, or break us — fade into spectres in our memories, like pages from a photo album we no longer want to turn.

At one point in the story Mason hangs out with teenage boys noticeably older than himself. It is one moment of understated dramatic authenticity in a film full of them. The boys lie about their sex lives, play pseudo macho head games and speak about girls using words like “whores,” though they probably don’t even understand what that means. They are little people in a big world, young and wimpish. Just like that kid on the tanbark, sucking on Redskins.

14 responses to “Boyhood movie review: One of the best of the decade

  1. Just to clarify, my review will be negative, but I am no hater. It is not worth watching for 2 hours and 45 minutes long. The only singularity to this movie is that it was actually recorded for over 12 years and the actors grow old with the characters. But that really doesn’t add much to the film, no more than it creates curiosity on audience to go and watch it. This could be easily done by other means, with no loss to movie quality. Moving on, the story is not that great. I hate to repeat that cliche but, here it goes, because it’s true: nothing really happens. It just goes on, and on, boringly so. There were no actual sad moments to cry, nor actual happy or funny moments to laugh. I mean, he could have had a dog and that would be his first experience with loss and death, he could have had a fight with a friend, or a first sex experience, or anything to just shake it up a little bit. There were no conflict to be resolved in the movie storyline. Sure, the main character is kind of lost in life and just being carried by the river of life and things that are pre arranged for him, and the movie reflects that. Sometimes he questions about it. But he really doesn’t do anything about it, being totally careless and blasé. Boy doesn’t really seem to want to live or do anything at all. One can have a couple of moments to relate and reflect about own life, but if that’s what you are looking for, my advice is: go live your own life. Go think about your past and future. Go flip a photobook of your childhood and that will bring you more thoughts and tears and smiles than this plain boring movie. I think the critics are overrated because of the concept of the movie, and not really the final result. The acting is not that good either. The well known actors are good as always. But the sister, for example, sometimes looks like a retarded person, or stoned. All of a sudden, movie ends. Almost three ours have passed and nothing happened at all.

    1. Couldn’t agree with this last review more!!! I watch a lot of indie films and don’t mind sparse plot lines or slow paced films, but this was unbearable. I just kept thinking of what a waste of so much effort and time to create a film so bland and shallow… and long. I still can’t understand why critics seemed to love this (sorry Luke).

  2. Like Russian Ark before it, Boyhood is a considerable and interesting artistic/logistical achievement but suffers from an unsatisfactory narrative arc. One reason might be because the character of Mason is, ultimately, a bit of a drip and not worthy of our empathy. I had a big case of the ‘so whats’ while watching it. Yes, I had a similar reaction to the Tree of Life and didn’t warm to the son characters in either film. Compare it to the far superior Gone Girl for narrative heft in a longish film. I was simultaneously surprised and glad when Boyhood was over. As Peggy Lee sang, “Is That All There Is?”

  3. I like to think I’m open minded when it comes to ‘art house’ movies, but with this one, I just found it plane boring.Yeah, they use the same actor over a period of 12 years or however long it was, and yeah you see him grow up and stuff, but so what? What’s so groundbreaking about this? Because its never been done before? I can appreciate the the movie not falling into any stereotypical americana movie style, (no cliches) etc, with the movie trying to resemble ‘life’ as it is. However the storyline was seriously lacking for me ‘up in the air’ at times with no sense of direction, but I think this was the whole aim of the movie. I got bored quickly and couldn’t wait to see it end.

    1. Exactly. The critics seem to love the concept of the movie, not the actual result of it. It Tries to avoid cliches, but ends up landing on so many of it. “Nothing happens” seems to be the general word about this movie, and it is true. Every time a conflict rises, the story is cut to a few years later. The boy couldn’t be less interested and proactive about his own life decisions. He justs let it flow and seems bored most of the time. Finally I ask, if the movie gives up so much just to “look real”, then loose 3 hours watching it instead of living my own real life (which seems to be far more exciting)?
      And suddenly (finally!) the movie ends and nothing actually happened.
      It has merits for being different, but different doesn’t means better.

  4. Yeah, it’s an ambitious project to film your actors over 12 years, to create and maintain a consistent cinematic/narrative style over the course of that process and on top of all that to take a punt on how your central character is going to develop as a person, let alone an actor or character within that narrative. But after all that – and taking into account the film’s formal device of eliding large chunks of Mason’s life and experience – it seems to me that he led an extraordinarily sheltered life. It must have been over an hour into the film, and with Mason well into his teens, before he encountered a black person. He seems to have got to college without ever coming across a gay person, or anyone who took any drugs stronger than a hash cookie. I agree there are moments of simple and sublime truthfulness in this film – almost everything concerning Patricia Arquette’s character, for sure – but finally I’m left with a paean of affirmation for a white middle America clinging to values of family while remaining divorced from and apparently blind to any awareness of race or any other diversity within the society in which they are livening.

  5. My husband and I chose to see this movie on the basis of this review. We didn’t connect with it at all. We found it tedious, too ‘American’ and gave up after 30 minutes.

  6. The gun handed down to Mason was a 20 gauge shotgun, not a rifle. I agree with Joe the film was too long (and could have been easily edited down), but then I was illegally parked.

  7. I saw it a few days ago – desperate for it not to end. Yes it was long, but great long. This film does deserve all the superlatives thrown at it because there is no other film like it. Almost hard to believe they were actors – and to make it seem so effortlessly true, they must all have called on all their own flaws and stories and best and worst part of themselves. Like Luke, I rank it a film of the decade.

  8. saw this film today after much hesitation……..
    just way too long.
    not a criticism of the storyline etc. just required sharper editing.


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