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Review: Boyhood

July 14, 2014

By John Corrado

★★★★ (out of 4)

Boyhood Poster

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is lying in the grass and staring up at the blue sky, the distinctive sound of Coldplay’s “Yellow” playing on the soundtrack, as his single mother (Patricia Arquette) arrives and picks him up from school.  This is the already iconic opening scene of Boyhood, a moment so beautifully captured that it evokes any number of memories from our own childhood.

It’s impossible to preface a review of Boyhood without first talking about the filmmaking process.  Director Richard Linklater started the production way back in 2002, filming about fifteen minutes of footage over a few weeks every summer until 2013, using the same dedicated actors to craft a tightly scripted narrative film that unfolds almost like a documentary.

But perhaps even more impressive than this groundbreaking twelve year approach, is just how beautifully and seamlessly the finished project has come together.  I first saw Boyhood exactly a month ago when the film premiered through NXNE, and certain scenes and little things keep coming back to me, as if they are my own memories of growing up.  Already doing very well in limited release stateside, Boyhood opens in Toronto on Friday.

Mason lives with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), the two of them fighting and also looking out for each other, just like any siblings would.  It’s not long before their mother announces they are moving so that she can further her studies, and they end up sharing a house with her divorced professor (Marco Perella) and his two kids, which starts a series of unfortunate relationships.  This is all captured through a compassionate lens, often contemplating why some people get caught in the trap of making the same mistakes all over again.

Even as they move around Texas, Mason and Samantha still spend weekends hanging out with their father (Ethan Hawke), a lovable slacker who is going through his own growing process, taking them to baseball games and on camping trips where he sometimes seems more like best friend than parent.  With these characters providing a compelling backdrop, we watch Mason mature from the first grade to his first day of college, developing his own political ideas and sense of identity along the way.

As one character finally hits their stride, another feels their regrets building up, and I’ve never seen the passage of time captured in quite this way before.  Even for those of us who haven’t gone through all of the rocky family situations and revolving stepfathers that are such a part of Mason’s life, it’s impossible not to find relatable moments throughout the film.  Because what Boyhood captures so beautifully is all of the emotions that come with growing up, from heartbreak and drama, to the moments of exhilaration and joy that also happen along the way.

Although running for 166 minutes, Boyhood moves surprisingly quickly, just like real life.  The film begins and ends at just the right moments, filled with plenty of perfect little scenes that often feel like memories from our own experience, the things that we remember as the defining moments that helped shape who we are.  The years are sometimes marked by historical references, and other times just by slight changes in appearance, all seamlessly edited together to create a singular work of art that washes over us and demands to be experienced more than once.

From the perfect song choices and evolving Apple products, as well as references to the aftermath of 9/11 and the historic 2008 presidential election, Boyhood serves as a mesmerizing time capsule of the first part of the 21st century.  Subtle clues are given as to what year we are in through pop culture references that are woven organically into the story, including a Harry Potter launch party and Samantha driving her brother crazy by singing a High School Musical song.  A brief conversation about possible Star Wars sequels seems almost prophetic in hindsight.

Recalling both the independent spirit of his early films like Slacker and Dazed and Confused, as well as the impressive scope of his masterful Before trilogy, Boyhood is almost like an encapsulation of Richard Linklater’s entire career so far.  He has proven himself time and again as one of the most original and unique filmmakers currently working, and it’s clear that he has a gift for capturing the little moments that ultimately become most important in our lives, and how people change over time.  These are characters who breathe and grow, and it takes a high calibre of actors to dedicate themselves to such a project.

Ethan Hawke delivers one of his best performances, with an engaging character arc that is allowed to develop over the course of the film.  Patricia Arquette is stunning throughout, carrying some of the heaviest dramatic moments, with a knockout scene at the end that allows us to see Mason’s growing up from the perspective of motherhood.  It’s mesmerizing to watch Ellar Coltrane essentially mature before our eyes, and he gives a performance of uncommon depth for a young actor, perfect throughout every frame from the opening shots to the profoundly affecting final scene.

This is a film that speaks to the universal truth that we all grow up, gaining experiences and memories that stick with us and ultimately shape who we become.  Richard Linklater captures so many of these moments, that the film becomes a timeless portrait of life in all of its glory, from the joyful memories to the moments of heartbreak that can make us stronger.  Because of this, Boyhood could have easily been called Life Itself, if that name wasn’t already taken by another one of the most profoundly moving and inspiring films in recent memory.

Especially for those of us below a certain age, the unforgettable final few scenes of Boyhood pack a similar emotional punch to the ending of Toy Story 3, signifying the moments that come at the end of childhood, with the promise of a new life just around the corner.  Both in scope and lasting impact, the film also recalls Terrence Malick’s 2011 masterpiece The Tree of Life.  These characters become a part of our lives, like people who we crossed paths with growing up and keep thinking about, wanting to get back in touch and hoping they are going to turn out okay.

“Let me go, I don’t want to be your hero.”  These are the opening lyrics of the Family of the Year song “Hero” which plays beautifully near the end of the film, a bittersweet track that is matched by a hopeful melody.  “I don’t want to be your big man, just want to fight with everyone else.”  And through the words of this song, I couldn’t think of a better way to describe Boyhood.  This is a moving and transportive celebration of people who become heroes simply by going forward in their lives, a collection of memories that could belong to anyone, and in turn belong to all of us.

Boyhood is a one of a kind filmmaking experiment that has paid off in a big way for all involved.  The result is a unique cinematic experience that is as quietly profound as watching life evolve and change before our eyes, and is undoubtedly one of the best and most important films of the year.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Linda W permalink
    July 14, 2014 7:28 pm

    Sounds a little like the British documentary, “Seven Up”….that is now at “56 Up” I can’t wait to see this film. Thanks for the in depth review!


    • July 14, 2014 10:13 pm

      That’s definitely a good comparison – really glad you enjoyed my review! 🙂

      Thanks for reading!

      -John Corrado


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