Play for Real: Richard Linklater’s daring and complex bildungsroman.


"Boyhood is a most complex and incomprehensible thing ... A man can never understand a boy, even when he has been the boy." — G.K. Chesterton

"We need guidance, we've been misled. Young and hostile, but not stupid ... " — Blink-182

If you're the type of person who watches older movies and whispers things like, "Wow, I can't believe how young Matthew McConaughey was in The Newton Boys," to the person next to you, then Boyhood, Richard Linklater's everyday epic spanning 12 years in the life of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), his older sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei), his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), might speak to you in a voice as old and irrefutable as time itself.

Then again, it might not. It's odd to like but not love Boyhood, which coasts into Memphis on a tidal wave of critical praise. However, like life itself, the film is full of ups and downs.

Because it was shot in installments over 12 years, Linklater's film occasionally seems to lunge from one time period to the next, jarring you like a teenager learning how to drive a stick shift. However, it soon becomes clear that Linklater chose to follow Mason's road from childhood to college without consulting the usual mile markers or signposts. We never see anyone win the big game, lose their virginity, or follow their bliss into the bright future. The few scenes of domestic unrest are troubling, but they don't drive the story either. Moreover, people who seem like they might be important — a kid with a Victoria's Secret catalogue, a cute girl in middle school who thinks Mason's short hair is "kewl," two bullies in a bathroom — often recede quietly into the background.

Impatient viewers might grow exasperated with these go-nowhere encounters and see them as symptomatic of the film's apparent lack of focus. For example, Linklater explores Mason's teen years in much greater detail than his early childhood, while Samantha's transformation from a mean, mouthy toddler to a sad-eyed but cool college girl is, unfortunately, put aside. Which is too bad, because Lorelei Linklater is my favorite thing about the film.

On the other hand, Boyhood's resistance to conventional narrative rhythms is crucial to its larger philosophical point. Although it's comforting to imagine that a person's life follows a pre-ordained script, Boyhood depicts Mason's life as a series of potential stories that begin and end without notice or warning. One long scene where Mason shares beers and stories with some upperclassmen at a house under construction (nice metaphor) seems to lay the foundation for lifelong friendships. Yet after this scene, the boys never reappear. They are merely passing through Mason's life, just as he is passing through theirs.

Yet, Mason and Samantha's change and growth over time remain queerly compelling. In one cut, Mason's voice drops an octave; he's beginning to sound like a teenager. Almost imperceptibly, his pre-teen cuteness matures into a soft handsomeness that eventually prompts a family friend to hit on him at his graduation party. In full view of everyone, the sullen little eighth grader becomes an intelligent, opinionated slacker-in-training. In a sense, then, Boyhood is an earnest, literal attempt to understand what all those distant relatives are trying to say whenever they exclaim, "You've gotten so BIG!"

click to enlarge Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Ellar Coltrane
  • Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, and Ellar Coltrane

Getting big is easy, though. Growing up is harder, even when it could be much worse. For Mason, growing up consists of sitting through a dozen years of poor advice from adults too old or too embarrassing to take seriously. The best scene in this vein involves Mason Sr. trying to explain birth control to Samantha in a bowling alley while Mason looks on with a bemused and curious eye that may explain his later interest in photography.

Boyhood may seem formally daring and unique, but it speaks to other works in Linklater's filmography as well. Linklater's decision to cast Hawke, one of the leads in the similarly time-obsessed Before trilogy, only tells part of the story. An animated vision of Lorelei appears at the beginning of 2001's Waking Life — she's the little girl with the paper fortune teller who says, "Dream is destiny." And when Mason and his step-brother go into a liquor store to cash a check for their drunken dad, the one who helps them out is an actor named David Blackwell, who played a similarly mellow liquor-store clerk in Linklater's 1993 masterpiece Dazed and Confused. As Samantha grows up, she starts to look like her dad; as Mason starts to express his skepticism about the future, he starts to talk and think like him.

When the drama wanes, the intertextuality fascinates. And so does the film's unintentional scrapbook of cultural and technological change. The pop songs, playthings, and young-adult obsessions in the film's first hour or so become suggestive and profound in part because Linklater probably had no idea that he was filming potentially extinct rituals, practices, and everyday-use items. It's a trip to see a college professor using an overhead projector while students take notes with paper and pencil, or hear Samantha talk on a cordless phone and tell her friend that she's got someone on the other line, or watch Roger Clemens fanning batters for the Astros.

At times like these, there's such an artless, determined ground-level documentary element at work in Boyhood that its average-looking imagery and melodramatic seasonings feel like unwelcome intrusions from less interesting movies. In other words, one alcoholic dad is understandable, but two is too much. In addition, Mason's awkward interactions with many of his fellow Texans seem strangely cartoonish. The older, bohemian audience I saw this with chortled with mirth at Mason Sr.'s theft of a McCain-Palin yard sign, and they laughed at the "red letter" Holy Bible and 20-gauge shotgun Mason gets from his grandparents for his birthday. However, the last laugh is on the audience. Mason takes these things in stride, and the first time he shoots something he has the same euphoria as anyone else who's aimed at something and hit it.

There's more here than there is room to talk about it, or at least it seems like there is: It seems like a highlight reel from a potentially endless rough cut. Yet after nearly three swift-moving hours, Boyhood ends — or I guess you could say it begins.

Speaking of...

Rated R · 160 min. · 2014
Official Site:
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Producer: Richard Linklater and Catherine Sutherland
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater


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