Boyhood: A review, plus a dispatch from SXSW



Richard Linklater's Boyhood opens tomorrow at Landmark Keystone Arts. I've collected here a couple of pieces we've run about the film. First up is my 4.5 star review that appeared in this week's print edition, followed by my report from a screening of the film at SXSW Film in Austin this March. Much of this content first appeared in a blog post back in March, but careful readers will find brand-new material I thought up with my very own head (or absorbed from the zeitgeist) this week. Thanks for reading.

Here's the review: 

Filmed over 12 years by Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused, Waking Life), about three days at a time per year, this fictional feature tells the story, from age 6 to 18, of dreamy but well-adjusted Texas kid Mason (Ellar Coltrane, who magically grows up in less than three hours).

There are precedents to the project in the documentary world, notably the Up series, which has followed the lives of fourteen British subjects since 1965, starting when they were seven years old. The premise of the Up series was a Jesuit maxim, "Give me a child until he is seven and I will give you the man" — something to keep in mind when seeing Boyhood, though Linklater keeps it a little lighter and less fatalistic than the documentary series, giving Mason a chance to make some choices for himself after years of moving from home to home with his single mom (Patricia Arquette), with his dad (Ethan Hawke) always in the background, cool but sometimes disreputable.

While I've never seen anything quite like Boyhood in a formal sense, it sure does look like a Linklater movie in terms of story and tone. It's sunny and optimistic but not without its rocky moments; driven by dialogue that's often funny and insightful but always natural; and it hits specific cultural and geographical touchstones without neglecting the universal potential of its story (think of how Dazed and Confused worked even if you didn't share in Linklater's nostalgia for the '70s).

And if nothing else, Linklater deserves praise for seeing this project through — securing and maintaining funding from IFC, making the smart choice to shoot on 35mm to maintain a consistent look, and coaxing good performances from performers at various stages of maturity.


And now my report from the SXSW screening: 

Linklater opened the screening by joking that Boyhood "never leaves the borders of Texas, much like me before I was 20 years old." And it's not like the still Austin-based Linklater has gone far; even if much of Boyhood takes place in Houston, Austin certainly features in the film (as a great place to party and experience culture, naturally). He noted in a post-film Q&A that everything about the project was unconventional, from IFC giving him a little money over 12 years to make the film, to the 450-plus person cast and crew (huge for an indie if not a Hollywood epic).

Talking with folks in line before the film, there was a bit of a misconception going around that the film was more of documentary/fiction hybrid than was actually the case. Sure, Ellar Coltrane's performance is informed by his own life experiences, for he is a human actor — and it's fascinating to see how his acting style changes over time. But Linklater said that he knew the last shot of the film when he started pre-production about a decade and a half ago, and that outlines and ideas were in place going in. Hawke backed him up during the Q&A, saying to Linklater that it was "shocking to see how much the movie looks like how you said it would like 12 years ago."

In other words, it wasn't a collectively devised film, at least on a script and story level, though Hawke said he did consider it a "joint art project" and everyone on stage during the Q&A, including Coltrane - miraculously so much older than he was three hours before - talked about how the cast and crew had become a family by the end of the shoot. That artistic family also included actual blood relations to Linklater: His daughter, Lorelei, plays Mason's brother in the film; he jokes that he "would have been disowned as a father" had he not cast her at age 8, when she was an enthusiastic performer."

Linklater joked that he should call the making-of documentary "12 Years a Slave," given the amount of time the child actors put into the film well before they had reached the age of reason. But Coltrane said that as he got older, he was more grateful to be involved in the project, and that he took it more seriously.

Other notes:

Linklater said he shot the entire film on 35mm in order achieve a consistent look, given the complexity of working in digital during a time of technological upheaval.

Hawke's character gives his son a cleverly compiled mixtape of post-Beatles solo work, The Black Album, that jumps from "Band on the Run" to "My Sweet Lord" (if I remember the sequence right), and Linklater joked that he hopes it'll trigger a release of an iTunes compilation along the same lines. Hawke added that some of the Beatles gifting scene was cut, including his lecture on the drawbacks of their solo work, including "John's righteousness, Paul's goofiness and George's over-spirituality."


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