Sundance Review: 'Boyhood'

I cannot promise how “Boyhood” will move you, or even that it will. Richard Linklater’s long-forming project charting the growth of its subject, Mason, in real time from age six to eighteen is not entirely unprecedented; Michael Apted’s “7 Up” documentaries revisited the same British children every seven years as they grew older, François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series cast the same actor as the eponymous character over the course of four feature films, and Linklater’s own “Before” trilogy caught up with its protagonists every nine years much as they caught up with one another.

Rare, though, is the opportunity to see a cast age naturally over the span of a single film, and yet Linklater had the incredible patience and foresight to reunite with lead Ellar Coltrane, parents played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and Lorelei Linklater, his own daughter, on an annual basis to capture piecemeal Mason’s growth from a hapless child of divorce into a young man of promise. The result is a movie made up of unlikely moments -- I don’t believe we see a single wedding or funeral, a welcome contrast to the carefully dictated milestones of last year’s supposedly life-affirming “About Time” -- that marks the passing years much as anyone does: with changes in pop music, fashion, technology, politics and entertainment.

For instance, Olivia (Arquette) is shown early on reading the first “Harry Potter” novel to her children, Mason (Coltrane) and Samantha (L. Linklater), and in due time, we watch as they eagerly line up at midnight to purchase the sixth volume. It’s a constant in their lives, even as Mom moves them all around Texas, from Houston to San Marcos to Austin, and even as Mason Sr. (Hawke) makes sporadic appearances in their lives. In the meantime, Mason Jr. grows up -- fighting bullies, dating girls, fearing stepdads, finding hobbies (graffiti), developing passions (photography) and gradually becoming his own man.

To that penultimate point, a teacher tells Mason that “any dipsh*t can take pictures, it’s hard to make art,” and to his credit, R. Linklater is not merely taking pictures over a carefully prolonged photo shoot. The story grew as his lead did, and the writer/director is wise enough to know that life tends to be both experienced and recalled with a certain fluidity. The passage of time in “Boyhood” often arrives casually, as we realize that Mason’s family has found a new home, or that our young man has a new haircut, or that ostensibly significant moments have already taken place off-screen. After all, memories themselves aren’t tidily restricted to emotional highs and lows; there’s a whole lot of in-between, and it’s in this space that the film thrives with its funniest, tensest, saddest exchanges. (In some of the film’s savviest moments, Linklater wisely plays against our expectations of potential injury from other, more calculating films. Mistakes are sometimes made by the characters, but “accidents” aren’t simply tossed into the narrative in order to drum up suspense and sympathy. Enough of both is earned simply from these tumultuous relationships and the uncertainty of daily existence.)

Hawke and Arquette are expectedly excellent throughout, and the director’s daughter brings a charming sense of antagonism and eventual respect to scenes with her on-screen brother, but this is inevitably Coltrane’s film to carry. Even when he’s surrounded by somewhat stilted teenage line readings, the maturing actor manages to give a convincingly unaffected performance entirely in line with the camera’s casually observational approach. Whether or not this leading man has the chops (or interest) to star in another film remains to be seen, but as the emotional anchor of his own story, Coltrane pulls off an unenviable feat in nearly every scene.

The most singular image of the film comes when a pre-teen Mason is asked to paint over the growth marks in a doorway as Mom packs up their things. Just because the lines and dates are gone doesn’t mean that he and his sister will somehow stop growing, and much of what follows comes from a place of wisdom and perspective almost entirely unseen in American cinema (if anything, this project merits comparison to the likes of everyday epics “Yi Yi” and “The Best of Youth”).

Like the best of fiction, it conveys greater truth about coming to terms with the world at large, and regardless of whether each individual scene is ultimately justified in its inclusion, the cumulative impact of seeing something resembling a life unfold over a mere two hours and forty minutes is overwhelming. “Boyhood” is Linklater’s third masterpiece in the past decade, and it should only affect anyone who’s ever been someone else’s sibling, child, parent, lover or friend.

SCORE: 9.5 / 10