All of Richard Linklater’s best films are defined by time. Slacker is essentially one continuous moment over the course of a few hours, Dazed and Confused takes place on the last day of school/first night of summer, Before Sunrise is a 24 hour romance, Tape and Before Sunset occur in real time, Before Midnight is an afternoon and evening of love and heartbreak, and so on. Noting this, Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, is his greatest exercise in time yet. It’s also the most impressive film he’s made, in a career that has spawned several of them. Boyhood is a film that stands to define us. Define who we are now, and who we were then. It’s a living, breathing time capsule that astounds for every one of its many frames.
Boyhood is also similar to Linklater’s other great films in that it doesn’t contain a shred of plot. There is no grand conflict to overcome, no generic character arc to follow. Life is the conflict, and the emotional arc is ever-changing. Mason is up as quickly as he’s down; shy one year, and comfortable the next. Rarely are sub stories in the film acknowledged after they initially take place (though there are a few specific instances in which they are). We meet interesting and complicated people once, then never see them again. For example, Mason is bullied in a school bathroom one year, but it appears to be a singular act. Such is life. One day, you’re in the bathroom at the wrong time with the wrong guy, and he pushes you into the wall because he can. Maybe it happens to you every day, or maybe you never speak to that kid again. This is the way it goes.
The film is 166 minutes long but could be double that. It coasts by like a day you spent doing something you love. Additionally, I was so pleased to discover that Boyhood isn’t just about Mason Jr. Throughout the film, we watch as Olivia suffers through romantic and financial woes, Mason Sr. matures as much as (if not more than) his children, and Samantha (played by the director’s real life daughter) awkwardly laughs her way through childhood before becoming a beautiful young woman. There are no chapters in the film, no title cards that clearly define the setting. The edits are void of gimmick and appear as they do in life, which is to say, seamlessly.
The movie was captured in its entirety on 35mm film, an essential component in helping Boyhood sustain its natural flow. It would’ve been cheaper, faster and technically easier to shoot using digital technology, but the quality of digital technology in 2002 was horrendous compared to what it is today. Linklater is certainly no stranger to digital filmmaking (Waking Life, Tape, A Scanner Darkly, and Before Midnight were all captured digitally), but if Boyhood was shot digitally, it would’ve looked very different from year-to-year. Because it’s shot on 35mm, the glorious opening image looks as aesthetically pleasing as the splendid closing frame. In many ways, the film stock is as much a character of Boyhood as the actors. Using the same actors for 12 years gives the film a distinct fluidity unlike any ever made. Using a consistent film stock only heightens the flow.
Typically in my reviews, I like to highlight one or two scenes from the film that had an impact on me. Moments of poignancy and grace; inspiration and achievement. If I did that here, I would likely describe each scene from Boyhood. Every scene is important, every moment significant. Like the tense and unpredictable dinner that slowly grew into a thing of sheer terror; the restaurant manager who moved me to tears with his gratitude; the pre-college conversation with Olivia that is not unlike an exchange I once had with my mother; and the bar stool chat with Mason Sr. that parallels talks I’ve had with my father. You know that initial bit of unease when you hear your own voice, or see yourself in a video? That’s how I felt watching this film. It so mirrored my own life experiences that it actually made me uncomfortable at times. But if you listen to yourself enough, your unease fades. You settle in and accept that this is me, here. I’ve spent my life watching and studying films, and I can honestly say that I’ve never had a viewing experience remotely similar to the one I had with Boyhood. This is a revelatory movie that redefines what film can do.
Movies don’t change. But on rare occasions, the significance of specific films is heightened due to our life experiences. We appreciate aspects of the film that we never noticed before, and identify with characters in new and profound ways. Right now, I identify with Mason, but as a grow older, I imagine I’ll get a better understanding of Olivia and Mason Sr. as well. Boyhood will evolve with me for as long as I allow it to. Which will certainly be for the indefinite future. A+
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