“Boyhood” is not a story you’ve heard before, but it’s one you’ve lived. Director and writer Richard Linklater’s film contemplates where life starts and ends, and it asks whether one can ever know if one is at the beginning or the end.
Some have called it the best movie of the year. It has a rating of 99 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. Its Wikipedia page calls it “one of the finest films of all time.” If you could make the hype train come to life, it would crash through your living room at 500 miles per hour and leave a pile of rubble in its wake. The hurricane force of the reviews is deafening, but it may be deserved for a movie of such drastic scope.
“Boyhood” is a movie about everything one experiences in life. The act of attempting to review it seems antithetical to the film’s central premise. “I don’t like to vocalize my thoughts. Words are stupid,” says Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), the protagonist of this film, at one point. So here’s the idea in plain language: The film activates something deep and personal within to a degree most movies will never achieve. In this way, “Boyhood” is a bonafide masterpiece.
“The literary inspiration — and it’s reflected in the title — was Tolstoy’s ‘Childhood, Boyhood, Youth,’ ” Linklater said an interview with The Daily Californian. “It’s his own childhood and maturation process. It’s in 19th century Russia, but there’s a maturation process. It’s always impressed me as an honest depiction of growing up.”
Linklater’s film itself ambitiously pursues the honesty of childhood. “Boyhood,” which began filming in 2002, spans 12 real-life years, culminating with Mason’s departure to college. From age 7 to age 18, Coltrane plays the character of Mason. It’s a fascinating gimmick by itself, and it will likely be, at least at first, the primary driver of box-office receipts.
But this film is more than just a gimmick.
It is dramatic, philosophical and brilliantly shot, and Linklater’s writing hits unnervingly close to home. It hasn’t received nearly enough credit for being really damn funny. There’s a take on the classic “parent explains sex to his kids” that might be one of the comedic highlights of the year. The humor breaks up the somber points, mirroring the relatable patterns of life.
“(Boyhood) is kind of made in opposition to traditional formulas,” Linklater said. “The film transcends limitations of cinema. I had to create a canvas to tell this story on.”
Artifacts of the recent past compose part of that canvas, marking the passage of time. At the movie’s start, one sees Gameboy Advances, “Oregon Trail” and “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.” As time passes, the shapes of the iPods change and the political signs shift from John Kerry to Barack Obama. The nostalgia doesn’t feel forced, like it might be in a movie that attempts to depict the past. These anachronisms are not the focus but unintended byproducts of the film’s unique approach.
But a focused examination of the film’s parts misses the Big Point. “Boyhood” has the unique ability to effectively make the viewer an inhabitant in its world. Much of this, of course, rests in its innovative form — no other film has been able to take its viewer on a journey of this temporal scale.
Its elusiveness is part of the difficulty of articulating its exact greatness. This movie does not supply some profound worldview. Rather, it grabs you and yanks you inside its world, crawls inside you and builds a home. When the screen goes black and the credits roll, a strange kind of sadness sets over you. It’s not because the movie is sad. It’s because you know you’ll never quite return to that perfect world.
“I think that it’s funny the deeper contemplation of (the film) tends to have a melancholy tone, but it doesn’t really need to,” Linklater said. “It doesn’t have any answers. It doesn’t tell you what to think. If anything, it tells you to appreciate.”
Contact Michael Rosen at [email protected].