Made up of stray moments, occasional bits of melodrama, and a gentle sense of time drifting by, the film is much better represented by its working title: “12 Years.” Nothing grand about that, just a description of the awkward age of life. (Writer-director Richard Linklater chose “Boyhood” after “12 Years a Slave” came into the world.)
“12 Years” would've also been shorthand for the film's making. It was shot, in the director's native Texas, over a 12-year period — Linklater knew the shape of the film, but would tweak its script as time marched on, incorporating topical issues and reacting to his performers.
This means that unlike most movies, which remake the world and impose an order on it, “Boyhood” reacts to the world; as 21st-century history and its actors' personalities evolve, the movie is changed by those things. This isn't just an interesting experiment, but a philosophical position: Protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane), tracked from first grade to high-school graduation, is learning that life does not fit into the pleasing rise and fall of a three-act structure but is doled out in unpredictable fits and starts.
So what's it about? (Other than about 164 minutes — the length is crucial, and almost unnoticed.) We meet Mason daydreaming in a back yard, his parents having recently separated; the broken marriage will linger as fact of life.
His journey through the school years is sometimes bumpy, sometimes mundane — Linklater doesn't reject melodrama so much as he politely declines it, opting instead for little grace notes and revealing encounters.
Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are terrific as the parents, and Linklater's daughter Lorelei is funny and distinctive as Mason's older sister. Other folks come and go, like people do. Nothing alerts us to the fact that another year has passed, unless we notice changes in haircuts.
As we reach the final stages, there's definitely a sense of rounding off the story, and a few appropriate nods toward lessons learned — the movie's not as shapeless as it might seem.
Still, it's quietly radical. Linklater's films are almost always nudging us to watch in a different way, from the unusually-structured “Slacker” and the “Before Sunrise” trilogy to the anti-nostalgia of “Dazed and Confused.”
By all means, enjoy “Boyhood” for its evocation of childhood, but let's also appreciate how Linklater calls for us to re-imagine how we treat movies and childhood: Less judgment, less organization, more daydreaming.
“Boyhood” (4 stars)
Director Richard Linklater shot this coming-of-age story over 12 years, during which time his actors aged accordingly. The result is a deliberately unassuming look at the small moments (and a few big ones) that make up the awkward years for a single Texas kid (Ellar Coltrane). Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are terrific as the divorced parents, and the movie's gentle flow means you almost don't notice the 164-minute running time.
Rating: R, for language, subject matter
Showing: Harvard Exit
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