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Review: A report card for 'Boyhood,' Richard Linklater's latest experiment

Filmed over 12 years, Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" visit with a kid (Ellar Coltrane) as he ages from 6 to 18, going through a bumpy early life.

Ellar Coltrane played a kid viewed from childhood to his late teens in "Boyhood." Credit: IFC Films Ellar Coltrane played a kid viewed from childhood to his late teens in "Boyhood."
Credit: IFC Films

'Boyhood'
Director: Richard Linklater
Stars: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette
Rating: R

The premise of “Boyhood” is that a more or less ordinary boy named Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grows up. That sounds less spectacular than what really happened: the boy really did grow up. Filmmaker Richard Linklater shot the film piecemeal over 12 years, observing not only Coltrane but also his own daughter, Lorelai, plus actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. How’d he do?

Presentation: “Boyhood” would be worthwhile even if it had been phoned in, or even if it had been incompetent. The “Up” series — which have checked in on the same group every seven years since 1964 — don’t break from their sometimes wearying formula. But they’re mind-blowing simply because watching people age really does blow minds — even if the lives are routine. (In fact, especially if they’re routine.) We’re all going to die, yet we don’t always treat our lives as if there’s only one of them. The “Up” films and “Boyhood” remind us that we all age and mortality looms.

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Lorelai Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane are seen somewhere in the early-to-mid '90s in "Boyhood." Credit: IFC Films Lorelai Linklater, Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane are seen somewhere in the early-to-mid '90s in "Boyhood."
Credit: IFC Films

Conduct: But “Boyhood” is not phoned in, and not even structurally redundant, as the “Up” films are. Because it needs to look like a single, unified film — because the footage shot in 2002 has to look apiece with what was shot in 2009 — it has a plain style. But Linklater never shapes his segments the same way. They’re always different. Mason Jr. is introduced, at 6, as the son of divorcees: harried mom (Arquette) and “cool” slacker dad (Ethan Hawke). He and his sister (Lorelai Linklater) stay with mom, who drags them around Texas, following various life paths. This means there’s variety and a real story, even if it’s one with giant time leaps that bury key events (marriages, jobs, births, relationships) in ellipses.

Agility: At almost three hours, “Boyhood” only has on average 13 minutes to dwell on each segment. It still has Linklater’s patented leisurely pace. He doesn’t even tell us when he’s jumped ahead. We just have to guess from changing hairstyles and context clues when a year has elapsed. Linklater couldn’t have predicted how Coltrane — not to mention Arquette, Hawke and his daughter — would change over the 12 years. But there’s a shocking control and unity to the storytelling, with details and lines that resonate the longer it goes on.

The teenage years for "Boyhood"'s Ellar Coltrane. Credit: IFC Films The teenage years for "Boyhood"'s Ellar Coltrane.
Credit: IFC Films

Effort: For an ambitious artist with outside-the-box ideas like “Boyhood” and the “Before” films, Linklater can also be laidback. Occasionally he’s even lazy. The inclusion of multiple macho alkie stepfathers is lazy, and it’s no better even when you realize this is a type to which Arquette’s character is tragically drawn. Likewise the time period signposts — from music (Coldplay, The Flaming Lips, Gnarls Barkley, Phoenix) to world events (Fallujah, the ’08 election, “Tropic Thunder”) — tend to be dropped too wink-winkily. To its credit, “Boyhood” seems like it was never intended to be a perfect film — that such slips were meant to show off its inevitable shaggy quality.

Accuracy: Mason Jr. doesn’t exactly have a normal life, but he still winds up, as he’s college-bound, a certain type: a sarcastic, cynical know-it-all who tends to hide behind a strangely affable smirk. He's the kind of kid who thinks the machine of life won’t eat him up, but it very well could, one way or the other. Even his reluctantly mature dad winds up with a minivan, while mom ultimately reflects poorly on a life where she didn’t adhere to all the traditional American path. Life in “Boyhood” feels both too quick and too slow — that’s the sneaky secret to the film's power. By the end so much has changed — a whole life seem to have been lived, and yet there’s still so much left. “Boyhood” ends, but it feels like it could go on forever.

Grade: 5 (out of 5) Globes

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

 
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