Film Review: ‘Boyhood’: Linklater’s Masterpiece More Than Cinematic Gimmick

Today aNewsCafe.com has a new member of its family, Michael Haley, a long-time friend who’s agreed to write a monthly movie review column. Welcome, Michael Haley. We’re glad you’re here! – Doni 

Much has been written about “Boyhood”, the latest film by Austin’s Richard Linklater. Evaluations range from gimmicky – albeit effective – parlor trick on one end of the critical spectrum to masterpiece of Americana on the other.

I’ve seen the movie twice in the past week (I didn’t quite trust my initial enthusiasm) and I’m continuing to lean toward the latter view.

For the uninitiated, “Boyhood” was filmed over the course of 11 years as we follow the path of an post-9/11 American family, with the primary focus on Mason Jr – portrayed by newcomer Ellar Coltrane – who ages from 7 to 18 over the course of three cinematic hours.

Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and Lorelie Linklater (the director’s own daughter) round out the cast of characters that Linklater assembled intermittently between May 2002 and October 2013 to continue filming as the young actors grew through adolescence into young adulthood.

Chief among the film’s criticisms is the loose structure and absence of plot – which I actually consider one of the film’s great strengths. Key characters are often introduced casually, without fanfare, because that’s the way it usually happens in real life. We don’t always know when strangers enter our lives that we will become essential to each other’s story.

The director avoids standard transitional devices such as title cards or montage scenes to cue the audience, opting instead to drop the needle randomly forward through time, and in doing so allowing the viewer to mentally fill in the narrative gaps. Once the pacing has been established a few times, we understand the narrative approach and something magical begins to happen: We feel like relatives visiting from a great distance, anxious to catch up on what’s happened in the lives of these people about whom we’ve begun to care.

One could argue that our own real lives are plotless affairs, meandering from place to place amid random events, and only appear to have shape when viewed from a safe distance through a rearview mirror.

I marvel at the focus, commitment, and guile Linklater had to employ just to keep this project on course over the years while completing a multitude of other films. Any number of things could have sunk this effort: bad health, cast defections – you name it. The fact that he held the reins steady over such a long stretch and actually completed a film at all is an achievement to be recognized; that he has delivered a film that so skillfully draws the viewer into the lives of these characters and packs such an aching emotional wallop demonstrates he’s an artist in full command of his gifts.

It isn’t often that one movie so radically changes the language of film to the extent “Boyhood” does. It will likely spawn many imitations in the coming years. But they will have large cinematic shoes to fill. Linklater got there first, and I think he’ll be able enjoy that status for a long time. Look for multiple nominations come Oscar time.

Spoiler Alert: I was pleasantly surprised – shocked, actually – when, midway through the film, we are treated to a scene where Ethan Hawke’s character is introducing his son to Wilco’s SKY BLUE SKY album while driving to an overnight camping trip, comparing it favorably to The Beatle’s ABBEY ROAD.

I had a nearly identical moment with my own son when he came home on leave from overseas duty in 2007. Incidentally, my son now lives in Linklater’s Texas – San Marcos and Austin – both of which are featured prominently in the film.

Michael Jewel Haley
Michael Jewel Haley is a Bay Area artist, photographer and writer.  He grew up in Redding, and developed his love of movies during Saturday afternoons at the Cascade Theater. See samples of his artwork at michaeljewelhaley.com.
Comment Policy: We welcome your comments, with some caveats: Please keep your comments positive and civilized. If your comment is critical, please make it constructive. If your comment is rude, we will delete it. If you are constantly negative or a general pest, troll, or hater, we will ban you from the site forever. The definition of terms is left solely up to us. Comments are disabled on articles older than 90 days. Thank you. Carry on.

12 Responses

  1. Tammy Douse says:

    I am looking forward to seeing the film.

  2. Stephanie Luke says:

    My husband and I saw it this past weekend, and it was a very moving experience. It probably resonates best with people who have had children. I kept expecting some contrived occurrence, such as a traffic accident or something, but it just went along the way real life does. Ethan Hawke gave a great performance of a father who has his own growing up to do. The whole thing felt like I was watching a real family go through their lives. It was fascinating. At almost three hours long, it was never boring.
    Truly a ground-breaking film.

    • I’m with you, Stephanie. There was always a hint of dread in the tone that made me fear the worst for these characters. At its core, the film is about the passage of time, and the dramatic tension kept us engaged throughout – without subjecting the audience to those contrived Hollywood moments you refer to.

  3. Aleta Carpenter says:

    I saw it last time I was at my Sacramento house, and while I admire Linklater’s accomplishment, was somewhat “underwhelmed” by the movie. I found his daughter’s casting problematic (in that her coloring and physical features were so dissimilar to both Hawke’s and Arquette’s) – so much so that it was distracting. Linklater was fortunate in finding Ellar Coltrane; sweet and sensitive from the beginning, and he aged well into the character. Worth seeing, but not really captivating …

    • Thanks for your sharing your thoughts, Aleta. I was able to quickly dismiss the daughter’s physical differences as evidence of a recessive gene at work and enjoy the rest of the film without distraction. I agree they struck gold with Ellar Coltrane.

  4. Ginny says:

    Thanks you for joining Doni and A News Cafe! Good write.

  5. Julie says:

    Linklater dappled in characters and relationships evolving over time in the Before trilogy (which I hope is still a work in progress) but to do this is the course of a single film is incredibly powerful. Can’t say enough good things about Boyhood.

  6. Brad says:

    Good review. My curiosity is now piqued and I’m going to have to check this out.

  7. It appears the only theater in the Redding area currently screening ‘Boyhood” is the Valley 11 in Anderson.