Movie review: Richard Linklater's Boyhood achieves its lofty filmmaking ambitions

In his lengthy film culled from more than a decade of shooting, Linklater pulls off a nifty cinematic magic trick.

Amidst the unending march of CGI-fueled superheroes through the multiplex, one has to look to the Tampa Theatre this weekend to find the real magic. The movie is Boyhood, director Richard Linklater’s ode to adolescence. It was shot over a 12-year period, with the same core actors regrouping annually to add scenes, the passage of time etched on their aging faces. There’s something in the way the movie was made, and the performances Linklater got out of his actors over such a long time frame, that makes Boyhood special in a way all that summer blockbuster brouhaha just isn’t.

Ellar Coltrane stars as Mason, who’s your average 6-year-old boy as the film begins. He lives with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Sam (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei), the family estranged from the kids’ father, Mason Sr., (Ethan Hawke), who still pops up in his vintage sports car and leather jacket for weekend visits with the children. It’s clear early on that reconciliation is not in the cards, with Olivia turning instead to education and the hopes of a better life for her kids.

That better life unfortunately involves a series of detours into relationships with abusive and/or destructive men. Boyhood returns again and again to vignettes of men failing their wives and children, either by simply shirking their responsibilities or, worse, through physical and emotional abuse. The kids drift through the adult dysfunction, still finding ways to be kids (there are plenty of handheld video games around, though just breaking boards in half with your friends serves as excellent entertainment) but also being shaped by a world they’re still years away from fully comprehending.

None of what I’ve described thus far happens in the usual narrative fashion. Though it tells something of a story, Boyhood reminded me more of Linklater’s early films like Slacker and Dazed and Confused, in which we followed a group of characters for a while without arriving at the usual dramatic climaxes audiences are accustomed to. Instead of trying to figure out what would happen to the characters, I found myself instead wondering what these people would look like the next time the film jumped ahead in time.

The startling physical changes of the actors, especially Coltrane, are remarkable. So much so, it covers for some of Boyhood’s notable flaws — first and foremost a bloated running time of more than two and a half hours. The loose narrative structure turned tedious for me right around the time Mason started wading into high school and dating. I also found it curious that Mason never seems to catch a break. Didn’t this kid ever have a positive childhood memory? A trip to Disneyland? A Little League game? Anything?

Nitpicks aside, there’s no denying the achievement that Boyhood represents for Linklater, and for his frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke. Much as they did with the Before Sunrise series, here the pair again shine a light on the passage of time in an interesting way. Hawke’s wonderful performance is matched by Patricia Arquette’s, who is as good as she has ever been. Coltrane too gives a great performance, if you can call what he’s doing “acting” — especially in the early scenes when he was under 10 years old. More than anything, Boyhood is an amazing time capsule of Coltrane’s life, the cinematic equivalent of lines marked on a door frame charting a child’s rapidly advancing height.

4 out of 5 stars
Rated R. Directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater. Opens Fri., Aug. 1 at the Tampa Theatre.

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