In 1992 or thereabouts I saw a movie called Slacker, an ambitious movie by a first-time director that involved easily over a hundred characters in what at least seemed to be a single take. It instantly became my favorite movie, not because of the premise, but because within that premise the movie was so funny and unconventional. The concept of the movie was to follow various conversations in and around the city of Austin over a 24 hour timeframe. The “one day” theme continued in the director’s next movie, Dazed and Confused, which I thought then (and think now) is one of the great teen movies (but it’s not a typical “teen movie,” which is what sets it apart) and Before Sunrise. I’ve followed Linklater with a lot of interest ever since. But although I saw and enjoyed every one of his movies, even Waking Life (which practically nobody saw and nobody liked), I felt like he hadn’t matched those first two films. I kind of wrote him off after School of Rock and The Bad News Bears remake, which were OK movies but it seemed like he wasn’t trying to do anything special anymore.
Well, now he’s turned out the movie of his career, and one which I’m sure will be talked about for many years. And I swear I’m not making this up, but I’ve always wanted someone to make a movie about someone growing up, and do it over a period of years, with the same actors aging naturally over time. So Linklater did exactly that, starting in 2002 and finishing now, in 2014. The movie is finallt here: Boyhood.
I would say, a lesser director wouldn’t have made such a movie this successful, but a lesser director wouldn’t have bothered. Only a patient director primarily interested in humans would do it, and Linklater is the right director for this movie by virtue of the fact that he wanted to do it.
I’ll try to avoid major spoilers but really, this isn’t the kind of movie that can be “spoiled.” It’s not a Bruce-Willis-is-a-Ghost type movie. It’s exactly what you think it is going in — a movie about a boyhood. But the following paragraphs are very mildly spoilerish so don’t read if you’re that kind of person.
I love the fact that the parents are people in this movie, and grow and change as much as their children. I’ve never loved Ethan Hawke as an actor, and expected I would be frustrated by what the previews promised would be a deadbeat, drifter dad. Instead I found myself rooting for that character, and marvelling that the actor who used to mumble his way through parts was doing it. But Patricia Arquette is even better; a woman who is more than once compelled to make terrible decisions that are the less terrible of terrible decisions. I also loved Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, squirming in awkward conversations with her “dad” (Ethan Hawke) (but maybe it was easy to squirm since her real dad was watching). Ellar Coltrane reminded me weirdly of Martin Freeman in the British The Office; able to communicate more with facial expressions to the camera than he does to the other actors, a style that’s peculiar but effective.
I think the movie works best because as these actors worked with each other for over a decade, they became close, and their chemistry is real–if Ethan Hawke and Ellar Coltrane had a palpable closeness in the final scenes, it’s because Hawke really did watch that boy grow up and cares about him. When Lorelei’s jabs at her “little brother” are delivered with the perfect combination of annoyance and affection, it’s because she’d known Ellar most of her life. The movie, despite its title, is less about a boy and more about family.
Ultimately Boyhood is testament to this approach to a movie: watching a boy really grow up and his family grow with him. It is the opposite of Forrest Gump, which shamelessly works in every big song and major event and reduces the human characters to types. In Boyhood, the people are real, flawed but heroic, and the story is theirs.
It’s probably not a perfect movie, but it’s braver, more challenging, and more interesting than just about everything else coming out this summer.