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No film compares to “Boyhood” — a movie 12 years in the making (no joke). That’s director Richard Linklater’s M.O.; from “Dazed and Confused” and “Before Sunrise” to “Waking Life” and “Bernie”, he never settles for anything easy. Even “School of Rock” is one of the better family-friendly comedies out there. So creating a film that follows one boy, Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane at all ages), from age 5 to 18, isn’t a shock considering the inventive mind behind it. No need for suspension of disbelief when the story ages with all the central characters.
At age 5, young Mason navigates childhood alongside older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), amid the challenges of divorce, adolescence and mom’s (Patricia Arquette) terrible taste in drunken romantic partners. On top of that, pops (Ethan Hawke) might be a bit of a deadbeat, but he is the children’s only positive male role model. As boyhood officially concludes at age 18, we watch as Mason transforms into a man in a near three-hour journey that is heartbreaking and wondrous, frustrating and adorable, mediocre and one of a kind.
That’s life for many American youths, and Linklater taps into all its joys and pitfalls. If you’re familiar with his most experimental film to date, “Waking Life” — a rotoscope journey into varying philosophies — and many of his others, then you might expect “Boyhood” to take a metaphysical turn. No, nothing surreal or dreamscapish occurs. This is as raw and realistic as a film can be. But Mason is a thoughtful kid, desperately trying to understand not just his role as a man amid many terrible examples of his kind, but how to be a human when confronting so many seemingly meaningless transactions in life.
He might seem ahead of the curve, asking uncomfortable questions that tend to annoy his girlfriend, Sheena (Zoe Graham), but there’s something authentic about someone so young treading the same terrain as the great minds of old and new. And he does so in such an immature, juvenile way –– something you’d expect from a bratty hipster or, say, a boy on his way to adulthood, who hasn’t quite figured out how to challenge the universe in a way that won’t ostracize those closest to him.
Far from a trite attempt at nostalgia — and there’s plenty of pop culture references to make anyone smile — Linklater doesn’t attempt an all-inclusive story for every child. Not even he is that audacious. Instead, “Boyhood” hones things in: life in small-town Texas, navigating divorce, confronting alcoholic authority figures and what it means to participate in life. There’s a plotline here, but it’s less important than the audience’s ability to connect the dots.
As time goes on, we the viewers must fill in the gaps. Don’t expect any expository lines clearly explaining each time lapse. Just track Mason’s changing hair styles. And when any character’s significant other disappears, just put that spunky little brain of yours to work and guess what happened. You’re probably right. It takes a few transitions to get used to it, but eventually everything makes sense.
Linklater has proven he can create commercial films, but he’s much more comfortable on the fringes of Hollywood (and he always takes Ethan Hawke with him). “Boyhood” cares little about the expectations of broad audiences, instead moving at its own pace. At two hours and 45 minutes, you’ll feel like you’ve aged as well. Still, Linklater develops a narrative style unlike anything else. Most biopics digress to cliché the longer they go into a character’s story. Painful are the films that start at birth and end at death. Instead, “Boyhood” explores one character’s bio with a clear focus: it’s all in the name.
This feels rather like the story of Linklater’s own boyhood (or he at least draws upon himself as a source). Mason isn’t a jock, but a photographer and philosopher. He experiments with various drugs, disobeys mom yet admits to various infidelities with love in his eyes, cares little about clear-cut lines between masculinity and femininity, and never seems to emotionally erupt when he has every right to. Texas, especially, becomes a fascinating backdrop for an artsy child.
“Boyhood” isn’t the most fun experience, and Arquette’s performance feels rather phoned in. But it’s film history in the making as we follow one family as they grow up on screen (it’s a little less impactful for Arquette and Hawke, but still noteworthy).
This is the closest to “The Truman Show” cinema will probably get; but more than mere novelty, Linklater continually asks grandiose questions without feeling obligated to answer them with bumper-sticker logic. After all, the process of individuation requires all of us to find life meaning on our own.