Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Review: "Boyhood" Delivers a Powerful Coming of Age Scrapbook of the Technology Era

Ellar Coltrane
The concept of time is a fickle thing that everyone takes for granted. Oftentimes, the years blur together, creating indistinguishable moments that define our personalities, relationships, and beliefs. For decades, film has tried to effectively explore this through character studies that are varying degrees of success. Still, with most of the stories having a fabrication and oftentimes plot holes or contrivances, it seemed like we've reach the epitome of this technique. Then, with one of the most basic concepts imaginable, director Richard Linklater unleashed a new, innovative architecture with Boyhood. Exploring the life of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 6-18 while being filmed in real time, he created a profound character study that embodies youth in a decade that predominantly has felt indistinguishable. He has created the thesis for the 00's. 

The film's universal appeal comes in the guise of every character. For audiences under 25, it is likely that Mason Jr.'s journey is the most familiar. From the use of technology to the love of "Harry Potter" and incessant Star Wars references, there is a sense of familiarity that rings through the years whose changes are marked by Top 40 pop songs ranging from Coldplay to Soulja Boy Tell'em. This world feels lived in and the innocence is key, especially as Mason Jr.'s agency changes from observer to active participant along with his believably antagonistic sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). It encapsulates the awkward problems of puberty along with the increasing reality of nuclear families who are often tragically flawed. For those over 25, the parental figures will feel more familiar for their take on a generation raised on accessible technology and a strange, hostile world after 9-11.

Returning to his native home of Texas, Linklater craftily has made an exploitation of what feels like an even more defined look at the state since his directorial debut with Slacker. At times, Boyhood plays like a road movie with significant moments playing out at ballparks, 24-hour diners, schools, and even in the gorgeous scenes of nature. It doesn't limit itself to any opportunity, and thus allows for heartfelt moments to come pouring out at the most sincere moment possible. It all comes across naturally and despite being extremely mundane, feels very honest. From pop culture conversations to the change in familial interests in each other, there is a sense of growth that eventually pays off with a profound final statement encapsulating the themes of the film. It may be about Mason Jr., but as he looks out into the canyons, it is about the state and the residents who shaped his life. 

The one standout performance is that of Mom (Patricia Arquette), who early on is forced to raise them independently of an irresponsible yet good-nature Dad (Ethan Hawke). More than any character, including Mason Jr., she shows a phenomenal sense of vulnerability as she goes through multiple failed relationships and reflects the sacrifices she has made to be the perfect mother. Like everyone else, there are physical changes, but what Arquette brings to the role is an alarming mixture of control and self-realization at her faults. She is the endearing backbone of the film whose influence is undervalued yet wholly essential. We empathize with her through the years and laugh when she cracks jokes with her children. She may not be as immediately likable as Dad, but as the implicit respect changes, Linklater's magic as a director begins to take form. Much like Mason Jr., Boyhood works as an exploration of our own upbringings and how certain people come and go, leaving varying degrees of memorable impressions on us. 

Most of all, the film doesn't manipulate. It simply creates an expose on these lives and how one influences the other. With a time capsule soundtrack and goofy haircuts, it is an epic that embodies the formative years with the moments that matter. It is like a memory that plays out, choosing to create a scrapbook of a life that wasn't perfect, but nonetheless familiar. Encapsulating Texas lifestyles in the 00's, it is more than a story about a boy. It is about a decade of progressing technology, changes in relationships, and even personal understandings. This film encapsulates the decade where progression overpowered memories and added sentimentality without overdoing it. Boyhood is just as impressive of an experiment as it is a film with something important to say.

It is likely that you have heard about this film, whether through marketing or from friends. It is one of the few phenomena of 2014 so far that warrants consideration. Yes, the film is close to three hours long, but it deserves every minute. Its ambitions may outweigh its narrative success sometimes, but like life, its sloppiness is its charm. Watching actor Ellar Coltrane age is also effective, even if he isn't the most memorable character in the film. The central cast and their idiosyncrasies combined make it an extraordinary film that will likely recall some of your deepest moments with your parents or friends. It works as nostalgia as well as a compelling scrapbook of memories.

I would even like to think that this is what finally gets Richard Linklater into the Oscar conversation. Along with the conversation surrounding it, the ambitions are met in ways that would be blasphemous to be ignored by the Academy. It is a highly unique film unlike anything from the past 15 years. It deserves credit for its process and doing something unique so successfully. While he has been nominated in Best Adapted Screenplay twice, this film needs to be in the Best Picture race. It encapsulates time in such an audacious way. Also, it is so far one of the most critically acclaimed movies of the year.

While I sadly cannot foresee Coltrane getting a nomination, I do want to start banging the drum for Patricia Arquette. No female performance so far has been this engagingly raw and empathetic. She embodies the role perfectly and her consistent shifts in emotions are natural and investing. Linklater really knew how to shoot a character whose essential job was to hide her trauma from her kids. For anyone who has had a mother, it is one of the most outstanding portrayals in cinema. She nails the cues and beats so wonderfully that she outshines everyone else in the movie. By the time she gives a heartfelt moment in the last 15 minutes, it feels too sincere and captures the movie's growth so perfectly. We didn't just watch a performance. It felt like we watched a life unfold in front of us.

In a perfect world, this film would already be at the top of Oscar consideration. However, I do worry that with the Academy painfully not recognizing film from the first half of 2014, that this may be on the border of being ignored. This has already been an exceptional year for film, and I would hate to see it miss out because of some annual bias. It may not be Linklater's best film, but his ambitions make him one of the most inspiring directors currently working who actually has created an epoch for the medium. It's about time that we recognized him for it.

Is the praise around Boyhood going to guarantee an Oscar nomination? Will the Academy recognize Patricia Arquette's subtle brilliance? How well does the film work in encapsulating your youth? 

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