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Review: Boyhood (2014)

Boyhood (2014)

Directed by: Richard Linklater

Premise: The story of a boy (Ellar Coltrane), following his life from age five to eighteen.

What Works: When motion pictures are described as “extraordinary” that label usually describes extravagant pieces of spectacle performed on a broad cinematic canvas like a historical epic or a special effects driven tent pole film. Boyhood is an extraordinary piece of work but not in the same sense. The movie was shot in an unusual way. The moviemakers convened about once a year for eleven years with the same ensemble of actors and segments of the movie were filmed a piece at a time. Knowing this about the movie makes the result on screen really impressive. The unusual production schedule invites a lot of risks: actors could quit or die, the various parts of the film might not unify into a coherent whole, and there is no way to reshoot older material. Fortunately for the filmmakers, Boyhood mostly comes together and the film plays similar to time-lapse photography. Among the impressive aspects of the film is its technical consistency. Because Boyhood was shot over such a long period of time it could take on a very uneven look but the style of the filmmaking is as consistent as a conventionally shot motion picture. The transition between time periods is fairly abrupt but the filmmakers use the naturally occurring physical changes of the cast and smartly incorporate historical and pop cultural anecdotes in order to place the film in its particular time. Boyhood also benefits from strong performances. The lead character, played by Ellar Coltrane, literally grows up over the course of one hundred sixty-five minutes and the young actor proves to be convincing at any age. Boyhood is primarily about Coltrane’s character coming of age but the story of this boy is also the story of his family and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke also give exceptional performances as his separated parents. The scope of Boyhood, along with its performances and the film’s technical craft, make this an animated portrait of a boy and his family and that is where the movie is truly extraordinary. Without overtly stating it, Boyhood gets at something ephemeral but essential about life and the filmmakers are about capture that in the collective imagery of this picture. There is an incredible degree of humanity on the screen here and Boyhood has a mysterious profundity about it. This is a movie that deserves to be watched and re-watched and watched again in order to be fully appreciated.

What Doesn’t: A lot of what makes Boyhood extraordinary is rooted in how it was made. However, movies have to be judged by what is on the screen and critics should stay away from emphasizing the struggles or innovations behind the scenes; that’s immaterial and tends to obfuscate the value of a movie. Boyhood stands well enough on its own merits but some of the discourse around it is missing the point by emphasizing the filmmaking techniques. As it is, mainstream audiences may have a tough time with Boyhood. The story is not told in the way that viewers are accustomed to experiencing narrative in a feature film. The picture is a series of moments occurring over twelve years but the connections between those moments are not always apparent and the film does not operate on the principle of set-up and pay-off in the way that most feature films do. The very thing that makes Boyhood challenging is also its boldest feature. The pleasure of traditional narrative structure is the illusion of organization. The way stories are typically told gives the impression that life itself is tight and unified and ultimately leading us toward a conclusion in which the meaning of our lives is revealed. In Boyhood, Richard Linklater rejects that notion in favor of a much more random structure that is much closer to the way in which people experience life on a day-to-day basis. However, the unconventional nature of Boyhood raises the question of whether a feature film was really the right venue for this project. It works in its own way but Boyhood might have been more successful as a collection of short movies or as a television show or a web series.

Bottom Line: Filmmaker Richard Liklater has engaged in several long term film projects but Boyhood is an extraordinary piece of work. This is the kind of film that critics and academics are going to study and obsess over but as challenging and unusual as this film may be, it deserves to be seen by a wide audience.

Episode: #504 (August 17, 2014)