Boyhood Review: Life Itself

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There’s no doubt that Boyhood is one of the most ambitious films of our time. Following the young Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, from the age of eight to 20, we literally watch him grow up over the two hour and 40 minute runtime.

It’s never been done before and it really works. Mason and his sister Samantha (director Richard Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater) live with their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke delivering an Oscar-worthy turn), has been absent for most of their early childhood. But Boyhood smartly avoids those narrative clichés by bringing him back as full-time as a divorced parent can be very early on.

The film doesn’t have a traditional plot, playing more like a long highlight reel of Mason’s most pivotal developmental moments. It’s meant to mirror life, and does so very well. Toward the end of the film, Olivia breaks down and says, “I thought there would be more.” Boyhood acknowledges that there really isn’t, but that it doesn’t mean there isn’t beauty.

And this film knows how to show the beauty of the early parts of our lives. As someone relatively close to Coltrane’s age throughout the filming (I’m 23, he’s 20 by the end), there is definitely an attractive nostalgia factor running throughout the story. One of my favorite snippets had Olivia reading the children Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Later, Mason attends the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. Because Mason and I grew up in similar worlds, there is a connection I had with Boyhood that people outside my age group might miss. The film doesn’t lose anything by this, as the scenes are still constructed in a way that everyone will be able to connect; but at points, Boyhood feels like a highlight reel of my own life as well.

That is where the film is a rousing success: it’s ability to connect simply by being fundamentally ordinary. But then comes a problem.

As Mason matures and his personality develops, his path becomes more, uh, whiny. By the film portraying adolescence more realistically than any other film I’ve ever seen, we are forced to watch an angsty teen for the last third of the movie. Yes, that’s life, and going a different route would definitely rob Boyhood of some of its majesty. But I found myself wishing to see more of Mason’s social life. What your high school friends are like has a tremendous impact on who you become. At a time in your life when your parents are the least cool people on the planet, your friends build you up and challenge you. Throughout high school, we only get a sense of what Mason’s girlfriend is like. Of course, the irony would become that when you go to college, many of those “important” friends become a distant memory. But I still disconnected a bit during the high school years of the movie because that aspect of Mason’s life fell to the sidelines.

Still though, every other portion of the film manages to grab you by the collar and make you watch a life develop before your eyes. Boyhood is a deeply personal experience and there’s no way to view it as anything else. Different people will relate to different things, but as a complete package, it’s pretty close to being a masterpiece.

Despite the runtime, you don’t really want it to end. I would have gladly watched the college years and his early 20s for another two hours. But hey, if Linklater can make two sequels to Before Sunrise, maybe by some miracle of scheduling we can get more of Mason’s life in the future. Boyhood may not have landed its personal connection for the entire runtime, but there’s no denying the sheer scope of the film. It’s not just a magnifying glass on a life, but our lives as well. It’s unapologetically honest and realistically unlinear. Simply, you have to see it to believe it. Grade: A-

By Matt Dougherty

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