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Film Review: An Extraordinary Film Tracks An Ordinary 'Boyhood'

Matt Lankes
courtesy of IFC Films

The fact that Richard Linklater’s extraordinary movie Boyhood was filmed over the course of 12 years could come off as a gimmick. Yet this amazing accomplishment is no trick and, thanks to powerful performances and a seamless narrative, it packs an emotional wallop that is both unexpected and hard to shake.

The family under Linklater’s benevolent microscope is complicated, likeable, and ordinary to a fault. Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is struggling as a single mom and, early in, uproots her two children to Houston. Mason (Ellar Coltrane, a seven-year-old as the film begins) is a deep thinker and more of a listener than a talker. His sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) is two years older and has mastered the art of sisterly annoyance that will forever irk younger brothers.

The kids’ dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), hasn’t seen Mason and Samantha for a year and a half. On an overdue visit, his son’s question about what he’s been doing elicits only a vague “working on a boat.” He’s the kind of divorced dad who can be both irresponsible and absent but then turn on the charm (and the presents) when he does show up. He and his children also hold a whisper of a hope that Olivia will take him back but she isn’t having any of it.

Credit courtesy of IFC Films
courtesy of IFC Films
Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and his kids, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) in "Boyhood."

Instead, her children suffer the disadvantages of her horrible choices in men. Even as she completes a master’s degree and begins teaching at a college, she habitually picks drinkers — and belligerent, at times violent, ones.

There’s a scene at a family dinner (Mason is about 11) where, after Olivia’s second husband's drinking has become overt, the kids’ innocence is shattered along with the tumblers and plates on the table. Her third husband, taken on when Mason is about 15, may handle his liquor slightly better but he, too, sharpens verbal blades on Mason’s tender skin.

Still, they’re resilient, and Mason becomes a young man who, at 18 – as he was in earlier grades – is averse to homework, disinterested in sports, and equipped with a camera and an open, unjudging eye. Coltrane wasn’t an actor when Linklater discovered him but he certainly matures into one. Arquette and Hawke are quite good as well as the genetic satellites who’ve encircled their son with as much compassion and patience as they could stir up.

Boyhood unfolds with great eloquence and intelligent understatement. There aren’t big announcements that Mason turns 8, or 9 or 18; the process doesn’t call attention to itself. The movie is a beautiful meld and the audience only registers the advancing years by the changes in the actor’s physicality: Coltrane losing his baby fat and shooting straight up like a reed; Hawke getting craggier; Arquette growing voluptuously thicker. What Linklater and his cast have achieved is a marvelous, miraculous film experience that celebrates those moments of life that register at once and resonate for years.

Boyhood| Dir. Richard Linklater | 165 minutes | Playing at a variety of theaters, including Tivoli Cinemas, 4050 Pennsylvania, Kansas City, Mo., 913-383-7756; and the Rio, 7204 W. 80th St., 913-383-8500, and Glenwood Arts, 9575 Metcalf, 913-642-4404, of Fine Arts Theatres.

Up To Date Filmdocumentary
Since 1998, Steve Walker has contributed stories and interviews about theater, visual arts, and music as an arts reporter at KCUR. He's also one of Up to Date's regular trio of critics who discuss the latest in art, independent and documentary films playing on area screens.