By Mark Saldana
Rating: 4 (Out of 4 Stars)
The newest movie by acclaimed Austin filmmaker Richard Linklater is his absolute finest so far and could possibly be his magnum opus. In 2002, Linklater began filming his long conceived story of a boy growing up in Texas and would continue filming annually until 2013. His work, not a documentary, intended to cast the same child actor and have him perform as the same character as he grew and became an 18 year-old. This uber-ambitious undertaking required the commitment of one Ellar Coltraine as Mason, Jr., the boy of the title, Patricia Arquette as his mother Olivia, Ethan Hawke as his father Mason, Sr., Lorelai Linklater (director’s daughter) as Mason’s sister Samantha, and other actors appearing in multiple eras of Mason’s life. This risky and ambitious gamble pays off beautifully as Linklater has made an amazing film that wonderfully captures all of the familiar touchstones and landmark moments of growing up. Having accomplished his goals with Boyhood and doing so in such a tremendously extraordinary way, Linklater has given film connoiseurs another example of what an amazing and talented filmmaker he is.
Beginning in 2002, Mason, Jr. (Coltraine) and his sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) live with their hard-working and dedicated mother Olivia (Arquette). At this time Mason, Jr.begins the first grade. We, the audience, get to follow the next decade of his life, being raised mostly by his mother. Mason and Sam do get to spend some weekends with their father (Hawke), a bit of a drifter with little direction in life, but their mother is the main caregiver. Mason, Jr. and Sam follow their mother from place to place as she improves herself with education, but also stumbles and struggles through bad relationships with troubled men. I could go into greater detail with my synopsis, but that would take away from the magic of discovering what Mason, Jr.’s life has in store for him, and the experience is truly magical.
Linklater is such an amazing writer that he can script and develop scenes and sequences of the most routine daily activities and make them utterly fascinating with some of the most charming conversations. The man developed and filmed an entire trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) of films based on the conversations between a couple. Linklater offers more of that here, but appropriately presents Boyhood through Mason, Jr.’s eyes. The experiences are all typical for a Texas boy growing up with divorced parents, but once again, Linklater captures all the right moments in the boy’s life and hits all the perfect emotional and dramatic notes.
At this year’s SXSW Film Festival, I had the pleasure of attending a round table interview session with Linklater and his star Ellar Coltraine. The two talked about the lengthy and challenging process of making this gamble of a motion picture. Of course, most of us in attendance wanted to know how the idea came about. Linklater stated, “The whole concept is to see someone actually age.” For the writer/director, he called the undertaking, “such an impractical idea”. but one, “that came about for a lot of really logical, practical reasons.” In wanting to realistically portray the life of a child without changing actors and risk losing the credibility of his audience, he saw it as a solution to filmmaking issues and not so much an obstacle. Linklater added, “It feels almost like science. A lot of your thinking revolves around solving problems.”
The writing, directing and editing choices made in the making of this film are absolutely extraordinary. The flow and pace of the film works sublimely, and never loses its hold despite its 166 minute runtime. Not once was I bored while watching this movie and this quality is a testament to the exceptional story and character development. Linklater also realistically throws out some curveballs, as life often does, and leaves some issues not completely resolved. He does so in the vein of recreating the experience of life and growing up. Linklater added “A lot of life is those abrupt shifts. Your family picks up and moves. As a kid, you’re not the one calling the shots. You move. You change schools, and you don’t see some of those people again.”
In addition to exceptional writing and development, Linklater makes some inspiring choices regarding the soundtrack of his film, using some of the best songs and music from the era in which the film takes place along with selections from past eras. Every piece of music that plays in the film perfectly fits their respective scenes and adds the delicious icing to the sweetness that is already there. This certainly is a skill Linklater has already displayed in his previous films Dazed and Confused and SubUrbia.
I could definitely go on singing the praises of Richard Linklater here, but that wouldn’t be completely fair to the awesome cast who bring these characters to credible life. Ellar Coltrane delivers the perfect performances from ages 8 through 18. The young man is a genuine talent who deserves a rewarding career in movies. I know it is still early in the movie season, but if Patricia Arquette doesn’t receive any kind of acting nomination in December or January, it would be a travesty. The mother Olivia is such an essential and driving character in the film that requires a strong and emotional performance and Arquette brings it. It is one of the best performances by an actress I have seen this year and one that I think will be tough to beat. Ethan Hawke also performs solidly as the slacker-type dad, Mason. His comic timing and smart allecky-swagger make him a charming and witty character. I have nothing, but praise for the entire cast, including the supporting members, but this review is already running too long. Before I conclude, I must mention the phenomenal performance by Marco Perella who stars as Olivia’s professor-turned-husband. Perella’s character has an ugly substance abuse problem that makes him quite mean while under the influence. In a couple of key moments in the film, Perella delivers a frightening and stunning performance.
As a fan of most of Linklater’s work, I find this film to be his best best and finest. I’m not just saying this because he had the courage to undertake a huge and lengthy project like this. That, in itself, is commendable, but the writing and directing in this movie is truly extraordinary and deserves to be held in same high regard as the classic works of Francois Truffaut, John Cassavetes and other independent filmmaker pioneers. So far, this has been my favorite film of 2014 and it will take an incredible feat of filmmaking to knock it off the throne.