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SIFF ADVANCE: Boyhood - Cinemaholic Movie Reviews
one person's obsessive addiction to film
Directing: A-
Acting: B+
Writing: A
Cinematography: B
Editing: B+

If you were to find Boyhood on television, and it were near the beginning, when the boy in question, Mason (Ellar Coltraine), is still in elementary school, you might fairly easily get sucked in. You would also find yourself wondering what the hell this movie is about. What's the point? Gradually, you'd see that Mason is literally getting older on screen, without the aid of makeup. That, to a degree at least, is exactly the point.

Boyhood was filmed by writer-director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Before Midnight) over the course of twelve years. Although the story revolves around Mason, there are four principal characters used in the annual shoot over the course of that time: Patricia Arquette as his mother, Olivia; Lorelei Linklater (Richard's actual daughter) as Mason's sister Samantha; and Ethan Hawke as his father, Mason Sr. Actually Ethan Hawke does not appear until the second year, having returned from a long job away in Alaska. There may be some other years when Hawke is not seen either; and in later years, perhaps Samantha is absent as well. There are so many years represented, it's hard to keep track. These main four are in most of them. I think Patricia Aquette is in all of them.

It's difficult to separate the years, because Linklater blends them all together without any identifying markers. There's no title card for each year or anything like that; we just organically observe Mason, as well as the rest of his family, aging over the course of twelve years. There's something a little off about the early scenes, and thus the early years, as though Linklater is still trying to locate his narrative even as he tells it. It's interesting to watch, and the Linklater-written dialogue is excellent as always, but it takes a while to start resonating. What story is he telling here, exactly?

I have long wished I could see a movie in which there isn't the same type of central conflict that characters must face and then overcome, as though that's the only way a story can be told. When they teach you how to write a story in school as a child, they say there must be a lead up to a climax, followed by a resolution. Many of us remember there's literally a diagram for this: Exposition - Rising Action - Climax - Falling Action - Resolution. Is it even possible to tell a compelling story without this formula? I've been watching so many movies for so long, the great majority of them are constructed exactly this way -- and it got boring long ago. Where is something truly different, something that falls completely outside of this construct?

Enter Boyhood, which chucks the formula completely out the window. There is no "Rising Action" here -- just . . . life. Linklater has offered an accurate portrait of what it's like to grow up in the early 21st century. It begins when Mason is 7 and ends when he is 18, which is enough time for the world and technology to change a fairly significant amount. But there's no way for anything anachronistic to occur here, because the characters live in the world in which the movie was actually filmed in every scene. There's no shoehorning of cultural artifacts to telegraph to the audience what year it's supposed to be. The changes are subtle, and natural. None of the characters are using cell phones, for instances, at the beginning; a few years later all the kids have flip phones. In the later years we see Mason on FaceTime with his dad using his iPhone.

No other movie in history has managed to offer these details with such authenticity, because no other movie has made the same achievement -- retaining a core cast of actors while filming a few days every year for more than a decade. Sure, we saw Daniel Radcliffe and dozens of other actors age over the course of more than a decade as well -- also an unprecedented achievement -- but never have we seen such a thing, with impressive seamlessness, in the space of just one movie.

By necessity, this makes Boyhood rather long: two hours and forty-three minutes. But it doesn't feel long, because once the narrative clicks in, it truly resonates. This is a movie that will touch people of all ages, or at least anyone old enough to be capable of nostalgia or wistfulness. The characters are specific, as are their struggles, but in the aggregate the very process of coping with the passage of time as the kids grow up is universal.

There are many minor conflicts, to be sure. Olivia moves through two different marriages after the divorce from Mason Sr., one of them a drunken abuser. She leaves that man, and his own two children, under dangerous circumstances. Mason and Samantha are understandably concerned about their step siblings and whether they will ever see them again. I'm worried about those kids too. We never get an answer about their fate, because that's the way life is.

Therein lies the crux of Boyhood: if there is any broad conflict at all in the context of this one story, it's just coping with life itself. The poignant moments are plentiful, such as the moment when Mason realizes that even after all his mother's achievements in life, "She's still just as confused as I am." And then when Olivia breaks down crying after moving into an apartment by herself now that her children are both grown and moving on, suddenly thinking about how soon she'll be on her deathbed, Mason says, "Aren't you jumping ahead by, like, forty years?" If Linklater worked on a sequel to Boyhood for just the next twelve years (he could call it Manhood), I'd be delighted to watch it.

As always in a Richard Linklater film, the greatest strength is in the dialogue, but the editing here should not be discounted. One can only imagine what a challenge it was, how much footage he must have had from twelve years of work. The editing in terms of carrying the narrative is slightly bumpy at first, but something even half as good would be an impressive achievement. It leaves the sense that a great story about any of our lives could be told, given the right editor. Think about how much of your life for the past decade would be dreadfully boring to be retold in any way. But then think of all the spectacular or life-changing or memorable conversations you've had, and if a movie were made that whittled it down to just those. That is what Boyhood feels like, ending on just the right note, with Mason just off to college, finding himself just past the gates to adulthood.

Ellar Coltrane literally grows up on film in BOYHOOD.

Overall: A-
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