The movie is a true masterwork from Richard Linklater, and a triumph of filmmaking that took over a decade of labor and luck to produce. I also found it uneven in the storytelling department. It starts out very strong in the first half, but then hits an emotional and character cruise control for the last hour of an almost three hour improvised epic.
The film, and I get to use the word film properly since it was all fantastically shot on 35mm, follows the growth and life of eight year old Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) and his complex family for the better part of a decade. His mother (Patricia Arquette) portrays the role of the stressed out single mother extraordinarily well. She’s so good, in fact, that you quickly forget her as a “star” and soon start thinking of her as the genuine mother of Mason Jr and his sister Samantha (played by the precocious and quick witted Lorelei Linklater). Honestly, I found Arquette’s journey in the movie to be the most hopeful, and the most melancholy. Arquette deserves a lot of recognition for how she was able to maintain this complex narrative for over a decade and not lose her character in the mists of time. The goofball, mostly absent, but loving dad is played at 100% charm level by Ethan Hawke. Hawke is the angel of tension relief in the movie (get your mind out of the gutter). When things get a little too grim story-wise, Hawke is sent in to lighten the mood and generally be likeable and fun to watch at all times (side note: if Depp turns down Dr Strange, Marvel really should give Hawke a call).
The movie is two hours and 40 minutes long, and watching the kids grow up over 10 years doesn’t feel gimmicky at all. The editing is subtle and the years flow by seamlessly. Trying to describe the exact details of what happens within those tens years is impossible in a review and attempting to do so would kill the enjoyment of experiencing this epic on your own. A myriad of happy moments and lows are present from scene to scene, but there isn’t one overall story arc or theme that you can really attach yourself to other than, simply, growing up. That’s why I think the movie will be seen as an historical masterpiece, but at times it can be rough to traverse - it goes from very dramatic waypoints in life, to moments where it feels like you’re watching a reel of typical family vacation film.
My only real issue with the movie is the lopsided feel of the dramatic earlier years when compared to the fairly mundane “high school” years. Mason Jr goes from struggling with the issues of childhood, dealing with making friends while moving cities constantly, dealing with a sister that picks on him on a daily basis, dealing with a string of bad choices his mother makes in her love life… to him becoming a teenager in high school where nothing really extraordinary happens to him. He grows into a stereotypical emo kid that mopes around and questions his direction in life. I found that section of the film still enjoyable, but for the final hour or so of the movie, there is not much happening in Mason Jr’s life that I found particularly compelling.
That said, the last hour didn’t kill or ruin the movie for me. I still found myself enjoying the characters interacting with each other and seeing how they all ended up. I just felt a bit conflict-starved after having just experienced such an emotional beginning and middle. Young adult Mason Jr struggles to find his station in life, and while it’s an honorable thing to explore, I just think it’s territory we’ve seen examined countless times before. I was hoping for something more profound to pay off from Mason’s earlier life as a child.
It’s funny, I think even though the movie is called BOYHOOD and focuses a lot on Mason Jr… the most dramatic and fascinating changes happen to everyone that surrounds Mason Jr.. Seeing his parents grow and evolve over the decade is really the reason to watch this movie.
I’d love to see a sequel to this movie in 10 years called MANHOOD (heh), where the opening scene has Mason Jr and Mason Sr coming out of the theater having just seen Episode VII, and ending with us seeing if Mason Jr follows a path similar to the one his parents took, or if he has followed his own unique destiny.
It’s a beautiful movie, and should be on every cinema fan’s must see list. Epic and involving is the best way to describe it.