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Review of “Boyhood”

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IFC Productions

David Ives - published on 09/18/14

Director Richard Linklater's latest film is a coming-of-age tale told in "ordinary" time.

Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Boyhood,” is one of the most critically acclaimed films this year and a likely candidate come awards season. Without seeing it, you might wonder why. After all, it simply follows the life of an average kid named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from an introverted youngster of five to a somewhat confident young man of 18 entering college. That’s a pretty standard setup for a coming-of-age story if ever there was one.

But in the case of “Boyhood,” there’s a couple of things that make it different.

For starters, Linklater and his actors filmed “Boyhood” on and off over a twelve year period. That means not only do we get to see the characters age, but the actual actors as well. Sure, we’ve all watched the kids from the Harry Potter films transform from angelic moppets into battle hardened wizards, but that was in a series of movies over a 10 year time period. Heck, Linklater’s own “Before” trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy was filmed over a span of 18 years. As audiences, we’re used to seeing characters age over time.

What makes “Boyhood” unique is that we see the physical changes occur all in one film. When shooting began, Coltrane was all wide eyes and baby fat. By the time it ended, he was a lean teen sporting dubious facial hair. Although the story itself remains fictional, the choice to film the movie in this manner gives “Boyhood” a definite sense of reality.

The other thing that sets “Boyhood” apart from other coming of age stories is what events in Mason’s life it chooses to show. Or better yet, what it chooses not to.

We never see the moments we expect to in a story like this. There are no big occurrences to mark the passage of time. With the possible exception of the scene in which Mason’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), leaves her abusive second husband, there are no traumatic events depicted onscreen. We never see Mason’s high school graduation. We never see him lose his virginity. We never see any of the typical Hollywood scenes that are meant to mark a child’s rite of passage appear in “Boyhood.”

Instead, over the movie’s three hour running time, we sit with Mason as he plays Halo, watches Dragonball on television, sneaks peeks at lingerie catalogs with his friends, argues with his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), listens to lectures from his various stepdads, stands in line for a Harry Potter book, spends the occasional weekend with his biological father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and generally "hangs out" like a lot of other shiftless teenagers.

It probably sounds pretty boring, and truth be told, if you’re not in the right frame of mind, it probably is. Even so, it’s all purposeful on Linklater’s part. He’s trying to make a point about growing up, and as a good Catholic boy, I think I know what that point is.

“Boyhood” is about ordinary time.

Yep, ordinary time, that large chunk of the Litugical calendar not taken up by holidays, holy days of obligation, baptisms, or confirmations. Really, there are no big events to speak of at all. And yet, ordinary time is where we spend most of our days living and learning and growing as people.

In a certain sense, that makes the ordered days of ordinary time just as important, if not more so, than the big events. Sure, we might buy the kids new clothes for first communion, call in the relatives to celebrate, and take lots of pictures. But it’s in the days and years that follow that rite of passage that the kids (hopefully) come to understand the deeper meaning of the sacrament and what it means in their lives. Ordinary time is where we work it all out.

That is what Linklater is getting at in his film—well, without the religious aspect, anyway. The only time religion pops up in the film is when Mason ventures outside the liberal embrace of Austin to visit his grandparents where, to his eye-rolling chagrin, they present him with a Bible and take him to a worship service. Mason’s condescending reaction is probably an honest portrayal of a kid who has never set foot inside a church in his life, but, still, it’s a little off-putting.

In fact, the characters are one of the film’s biggest flaws. I know, I know—I’m risking ostracization from the community of film critics by suggesting there’s actually something wrong with “Boyhood,” but the fact is that the characters in and of themselves aren’t that interesting. Olivia is a rather hopeless figure who picks up a consecutively worse new husband every few years, while Mason Sr. is a self-centered man-child suffering from chronic Bush derangement syndrome. As for Samantha and Mason, they’re just kind of bland.

The other problem with the movie is that some of the scripting and acting, especially in the earlier scenes, is just bad. There, I’ve said it. Now I’ll wait for my fellow movie reviewers to send me notes telling me to shut up, stay home, and never write about another film as long as I live. But it’s the truth.

None of that stops “Boyhood” from being a great movie, though. At least not if you can connect with it, anyway. You see, even with it’s unimpressive characters, “Boyhood” still has the potential to tap into a viewer’s own life experiences. That’s not to say you’ll recognize yourself in Mason per se (you’re probably better off if you don’t), but as the film proceeds, you just might start to recognize how your own sense of self developed through all the ordinary times of your adolescence. It might remind you of how you came to be you.

Trust me, I know how sketchy that sounds, but that’s truly how the film operates. “Boyhood” isn’t one of those movies you casually enjoy or appreciate, you just have to feel it. If you can make that emotional connection, you’ll leave very satisfied. But if it doesn’t work for you, well, then I’m afraid you’ll be left thinking you just watched the most overrated movie of the year.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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