Film Review: Reliving Boyhood at the Expert Hands of Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ is as much a reflection on questionable parenting as it is a snapshot of modern adolescence, albeit a 12-year-long snapshot that seamlessly eases its way through the life of young Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). Most movies use multiple actors to depict a character’s phases of life, but ‘Boyhood’ was filmed over the span of 12 years. The audience is treated to a single actor who is seen growing up on the screen.

From left, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ellar Coltrane, and director Richard Linklater at the 64th Annual Berlin International Film Festival in February 2014.
From left, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ellar Coltrane, and director Richard Linklater at the 64th Annual Berlin International Film Festival in February 2014. — photo: dpa

The press on this film has been overwhelmingly superlative. Before seeing it, one might have assumed it being filmed over such a long time span was simply a gimmick. However, it was entirely convincing – a gimmick that worked. This is a story that sets you up for disasters that end up not happening and simultaneously puts some of the most troubling moments of a blended family under the microscope.

Aside from the young actor whose silence says more than any dialogue could, the hero of the plot could be considered the mother (Patricia Arquette). She shows both resolve and vulnerability at the disappointing revolving door of husbands who cycle in and eventually rage out of control.

In the hands of a lesser director, some moments in the story could have been seen as focusing on life’s monotony. The characters get in the car and the conversation they have while driving is enough plot. Not to say this movie has no events – there are plenty of those, as well.

The sex talk in the bowling alley, the dishes that are drunkenly thrown at the kitchen table, the childish karate on a construction site, a graduation party with both poignant and uncomfortable speeches – there are definitely those grand moments of a life.

However, this is a reflective story. The director refuses to hand-feed his message. He luckily leaves plenty of space in the pacing of the story for the viewer to ponder its themes and to consider what it says about where we as a society are headed. Mason and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater) might not symbolize all children, but they are on screen observing quite a lot of infantile behavior by the adults in their lives.

Director Richard Linklater won the "Silver Bear" award for Best Director in the main competition at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2014 -- photo: dpa
Director Richard Linklater won the “Silver Bear” award for Best Director in the main competition at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2014 — photo: dpa

There is a kind of redemption in the story of Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke), while not completely cutting him slack for his absence in the opening scenes of the movie. He might get another chance with his new family, but he never completely loses his reputation as the bumbling adolescent who never quite got it together.

This gives the impression that this film is a morality tale, and it is anything but that. While asking the big questions, it refuses to deliver any easy answers. Whether there is a happy ending or not is beside the point. We are somehow comforted that the parents in the film are still finding their way. The mother’s resilience and the father’s earnestness have somehow prepared their children for the same sort of universal search that young couple must have been on before bringing these children into the world.

The critics were right: this film is one of the year’s best. Building Oscar buzz in the middle of the summer is quite an achievement, but this one both promises and delivers.