Boyhood is the best film I’ve seen so far this year. Let’s start there. Something easily could come along and unseat Richard Linklater’s film from this perch. The year’s only half over, and I fully expect several incredible films to come along and try. But at the moment, this is the most ingenious, most effective, most experimental, most unpredictable, most demanding, most rewarding and most enjoyable movie I’ve screened.
What I can’t quite put my finger on is whether I appreciate Boyhood for what it attempts, or for what it actually accomplishes. The answer, I’m sure, is a little bit of both.
Prior to Boyhood, Richard Linklater was best known for the rambling, conversational Before trilogy – a series of films that periodically checked in with star-crossed soul mates Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) over the course of their rambling, uncharted relationship. And it’s that loose, free-flowing structure that informs and guides Boyhood, only on an expansive scale that allows for more pockets of honest introspection stretched over a larger (and, you’d think, impossible), time span.
You see, Linklater filmed Boyhood once a year over the course of 12 years, capturing the day-to-day journeys of a fictional family – led by Hawke and, here, Patricia Arquette – from the time their youngest son, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), starts kindergarten until the day he leaves for college. And it’s magnificent, in every sense of that word.
When praising Boyhood, one hardly knows where to begin. Let’s start with the technical aspects of Linklater’s project, because they represent such an incredible gamble that I’m awed that the director and his cast were able to overcome the ceaseless stream of obstacles that should have prevented Boyhood from crossing the finish line. Think about this. Linklater hired 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane in 2002, and invested time, energy and (above all else) hope that this adolescent kid would maintain the wherewithal to complete an expansive, emotional journey. I have two boys, currently ages 10 and 6. Figuring out what they want for dinner each night is an Herculean task. There’s no way I could begin to imagine them committing to a project for the next 12 years.
Oh, yeah… and being incredibly good at it.
Overlook, for a second, that Linklater successfully reunited his cast once a year for the duration of a 12-year shoot (a feat that I’ll never stop praising). Coltrane, on top of being dependable, grows into a mature, expressive performer who easily connects to the peaks and valleys of Mason’s journey as Boyhood unfolds. This transitions us into the creative side of Boyhood, the storylines that Linklater and his cast must follow to keep us intertwined in the film, and its here where the dramatic contributions of the stellar ensemble match the showy technical concept of Linklater’s sprawling premise. In simpler words, Boyhood lures you in with the carnival-barker nature of its gimmick, then burrows under your skin with the beautiful, painful personal insights stitched into the fabric of each scene. It’s a wonder, on every level, that a movie like Boyhood can exist. It’s even more amazing that it can be as good as it is while coming together under impossible odds.
Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, if we have been paying even the slightest bit of attention to the ear and the eye Linklater lent to his spectacular, in-the-moment slice of life Before films, then we know that he’s capable of questioning life’s various left turns in a rambling, eclectic and ongoing cinematic conversation. And that’s what Boyhood offers. Instead of struggling to tell one over-reaching narrative, it picks and chooses its moments to reflect the life of a fractured (but evolving) family, where divorced parents – only known by the universal monikers Mom (Arquette) and Dad (Hawke) – try to raise two children in the smoothest and choppiest of situations. Is it our journey, as well? Not always, but often. Fluid and significant, Boyhood exists as both a time capsule of one person’s life, and a blue print for how many of us have, will or could spend our formative years.
I screened Boyhood at the South By Southwest film festival in March. I’ve thought about it every other day since. It’s that kind of movie, a stunning work of art that lingers – and improves – in the memories. The magic of Boyhood, I believe, will be in the way it speaks so softly, and says so little, yet will be heard – in so many different ways – by all who choose to listen.