Sundance Review: Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a fascinating experiment

Posted by Nathan Andersen on Tue, Jan 21, 2014 at 6:30 PM

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
  • Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
12 years in the making, Richard Linklater’s late inclusion into the 2014 Sundance Film Festival lineup does something very rare in fiction cinema. His actors age naturally in a film whose story spans over a decade in the life of an extended family. I’ve seen something like this in the fascinating Up Series documentaries, in which Michael Apted follows the lives of fourteen British children from the age of 7, returning to them every seven years. Sometimes you get this in a successful television series, that runs over several seasons and captures the changing lives and aging bodies of its stars. It happened with the Harry Potter movies, as Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson went from pimply kids to young adults over the course of several sequels. Usually, though, films make use of makeup or special effects (or multiple actors) to artificially create or mask the appearance of aging.

We start out with Patricia Arquette as the single mother of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Charlie (the director's daughter Lorelei LInklater), struggling to hold down a job and raise her kids. Their father, played by Ethan Hawke, had left them a few year’s back, but is hoping now to play a part in their lives. Things aren’t easy. His mom ends up married twice, and both times it ends badly. She gets an education and a teaching job, as the kids grow up, have important experiences and learn life’s lessons. Some of these lessons are profound, some quite banal, but it mostly feels genuine, and at nearly three hours it never ceased to be engaging. It helped that the soundtrack signaled the passage of time with hit songs, beginning with Coldplay’s 2000 hit “Yellow” and ending with recent Arcade Fire and Daft Punk tracks.

Shot intermittently over a twelve year period, the film is a fascinating experiment that wouldn’t have worked at all if Linklater hadn’t selected such a fantastic cast. Patricia Arquette is perfect as a sometimes volatile but strong and stubborn woman, who manages to raise two intelligent but fragile kids in spite of circumstances that are far from ideal. Ethan Hawke manages a convincing arc from a carefree wannabe rockstar to a settled down family man (married to another woman). The real find, though, was Ellar Coltrane, who anchors the film, and aged throughout from a 5-year-old dreamer to an artsy and passionate college freshman. It’s a nice follow up on Linklater’s Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight trilogy, also starring Ethan Hawke, which focuses on a young couple when they meet, when they reconnect, and as they face middle age in a marriage that may be in trouble. If he follows the pattern of returning to the same subject in another film, then in another dozen years we should get a sequel to this one, maybe called "Adulthood." I can’t wait. (Of course, since I have a daughter about the same age as Mason in the film, I'll have a chance to see a version of the same thing much closer to hand.)

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