Dir. Richard Linklater. U.S. 2014

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When we look back at our lives, it is interesting to see the things that we remember - snapshots of people, places, or events that may be devoid of any context but remain etched in our mind forever. Richard Linklater, director of the Before trilogy, has taken on his biggest challenge in filming Boyhood, the odyssey of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), an East Texas boy whom we follow from grade school at age six until his entry into college at eighteen. Shot in thirty nine days over a period of twelve years, the fictional film has little dramatic arc but captures the physical and emotional growth of Mason, his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and his older sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei) with striking reality.

It is a great achievement and one of the best films of the year. 

Marked by the sensitive and restrained performance of newcomer Coltrane, as well as by the quality work of professionals Hawke and Arquette, Boyhood allows us to look at our life and confront our own memories, something that most people do not feel comfortable in doing. Told from Masonís point of view, the film follows the family through a series of relationships that involve frequent moves, changes of schools, meeting new friends, and periods of readjustment. It unfolds in an quietly, episodic way with Masonís growing up occurring seamlessly without need of intertitles. 

It is evident when the character has grown but Linkater also provides cultural and political markers of where we are, such as references to Bush, Kerry, and Obama and music that is identified with a particular year. The film is called Boyhood but it is also about parenting Ė what works and what doesnít. After splitting up with Masonís father (Ethan Hawke), Olivia meets and marries Professor Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella) while attending college in Houston. A divorced man who has two children of his own, things go well at the beginning but we watch as the man evolves into an abusive alcoholic who is threatening to the family. Oliviaís other relationship with a military veteran of the Iraq War also turns sour as his rigidity and fondness for the bottle brings the relationship to an end. 

Mason is fortunate, however, in that his real father (Hawke) is open and easy-going (some might call him immature), taking him to Astrosí baseball games, sharing folk songs he has composed, and giving Mason a birthday gift of a collection of Beatlesí songs that he put together. Ultimately, though, he is unable to provide the stability of a male role model that Mason so sorely lacks, a fact that becomes obvious when Mason learns that his fatherĎs word about a gift he once promised has little meaning.

Steering his way through the jungle of high school where he has to endure bullying at school as well as at home, Masonís introspective personality takes on an artistic bent and it is clear that he is an individual in a society that values conformity and fitting in. 

Developing an interest in photography is the first sign that he has managed to discover his own self, separate from his parents and the other influences he has had. He puts in a lot of time to develop his gift (though we donít see any of his photos), even though he is being constantly prodded by parents, teachers and bosses about how strong his intention is to succeed. Condensing twelve years into a 165-minute film is not an easy task and, in spite of its authenticity, some of it comes off as a highlight reel.

The characters spout conventional wisdom about the role of women, the lack of magic in the world, the need to work hard, and that achievement - what you do in life is more important than who you are, but it is unclear how much of this Mason absorbs and how much he rejects. 

By the time he is ready to go to college in Austin, however, Mason has set aside what others want for him - religious studies, gun ownership, political activism, and others and emerges as a distinct self with his own ideas about life.

While Boyhood inevitably focuses on the mundane experiences of everyday life, it misses the highs and lows, events that transcend the ordinary and give life its special quality, epiphanies that allow us a deeper vision of who we really are. One of the high points of the film, however, is Masonís high school graduation when he is surrounded by the love of family and friends, and even former employers. 

Incongruously, when Mason is leaving for college, his mother tells him how futile her life has been and wonders if this is all there is. Unfortunately, the film does not seize upon the opportunity at that point to convey the idea that giving and receiving love gives life its meaning. More revealing is the moving spiritual note on which the film ends. It is a moment of grace where we can see Masonís understanding of who he is move to a new level of awareness. It is perhaps the first time we no longer see Mason as a boy but as the self-aware young man he has become. 


Howard Schumann

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