Saturday, August 9, 2014

Review: Boyhood

Version I Watched: Theatrical cause it FINALLY made it here!

History: This ambitious project's inception dates all the way back to 2002 despite coming out just this year. Richard Linklater assembled a cast and crew and shot little by little over the course of twelve years to watch the story's lead, Mason, grow as the actor grew in real life. Played by Ellar Coltrane he was cast at the age of seven and filming finished at eighteen. Making this the most literal coming of age story in film history.
Production was done in a very non-traditional way outside of the twelve year schedule. The first being they could not sign contracts for this project, because it's illegal to do something for more than seven years contractually. Branching off that I am assuming signing and re-signing had it's own complications as well. In addition to this Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason's father, was so involved in the project that Richard Linklater said if he died during production that Hawke would have to finish it.
While Richard Linklater is credited as writing the film he didn't have a full script done when they started. Instead it was written throughout the twelve years they filmed it, even getting the cast involved in the writing process. The film also didn't have a title until everything was wrapping up. At first it was going to be titled 12 Years. A title that was changed quickly to avoid confusion with 12 Years A Slave, which was released the year before Boyhood.
The film premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival where it received a lot of praise. It also played at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival where Richard Linklater won best director. It eventually received a limited release in July this year, slowly opening to more and more screens as the weeks went on, currently still considered a limited release film as you will likely not find this at any old cinema. So far it's only made a little over $10 million which is still good for how limited a release it's gotten. Even better is it only cost around $2.5-$4 million to make.
Lastly, it currently holds a staggeringly high 99% on Rotten Tomatoes.

Personal History: First viewing of a film I've literally waited years to see. I remember stumbling across this in early college. Meaning it wasn't even halfway done when I first hear about it. And back then it was simply labelled as 'Untitled 12-Year Project' or something like that. I knew little to nothing about it and wondered if it would even be completed. Beyond that... if it would ever be seen by the masses. Thankfully it was finished and it has made it's limited release.

Review: I am so happy this film exists.
In an industry full of people who are jumping on the gravy trains of what's HOT AND NEW all for the sake of a cash grab it's always good to know there are artists out there with the patience and dedication to not just tell a story, but to make groundbreaking art. Never before has something been done to this level. And I guarantee it'll be a long time before it's done again.
Seriously, even if this totally blew. Even if it was a big letdown I would have still respected it for what it did. Thankfully that wasn't the case. Cause this experience was so unlike what I've experienced before. I'm hesitant to simplify it by saying it was one of the best of the year. While not necessarily in my top ten, I could see this jumping very high into one of my top films of all time.

I'll do my best to keep this spoiler free by only talking in detail about the first half while only hinting or glossing over the second half. Then again since this is the life story of a boy's life from first to twelfth grade it's hard not to spoil it cause I'm sure you can predict what will happen at certain points.

The opening is simple. We are dropped into the world of a seven year old boy first shown laying in the grass staring into the sky just like on the poster. He's picked up by his mom where they have a cute chat about his day. We quickly learn he has a big sister and are living in a broken home. His dad isn't around and his mom has a knack of making bad mistakes. With that we're given the setup to the next twelve years of this boys life as he tries to survive it all.
Survive his mom's new men, meaning new dads. Survive not seeing his real dad very often. Survive moving around and going to new schools being forced to make new friends. Just surviving life which gets especially difficult in his teen years as it did for all of us. While not having the literal exact same experiences I did, I did find a lot of moments and elements of Mason's life and his experiences very familiar.
Which is easily one of the best parts of this story. Almost anyone seeing this movie as it's released can have a personal experience connected to it in a way I've never seen before. He shared some of my same interests, had similar fumbling experiences talking to girls, and had moments of trying to look cool around peers or older kids. Girls can even relate through Mason's sister, Samantha, by seeing themselves in her or recognizing their own brother's traits in Mason. Then there's the parental aspect. If you're a parent of a child born within the last twenty to thirty years, maybe even beyond, I know you'll find something familiar in this world. Even if you're not divorced from your spouse like Mason's parent's were.
This was such a relatable experience. Even though Mason is seven years younger than I am I still felt a strong connection considering we grew up in similar eras. The early 2000's weren't that much different from the mid-late 90's. It's just the cultural references had a different form of reminiscing to me. Like when they mention the Bush v Kerry election when he was still in elementary school but I was in high school, or talking about movies like The Dark Knight when he was in late middle school and I was in college. None the less it's not the references but the experiences he went through.

Speaking of cultural references. I can't think of a single moment where this movie felt dated. Richard Linklater did an amazing job of making the film feel like it was done all at once instead of over a long period of time. An incompetent filmmaker may not have been able to stay so consistent with the film's look and feel.
Best part of all it never had the need to make it clear what year it was.
Unlike period pieces set in, let's say, the 1970's where an entire decade is boiled down to some cliches Boyhood was done in and of the moment so how would they know what was the cliche? How would they know what would last? Because of that all the design choices feel stupendously organic solely because it was filmed in and of the moment. And the more I think about it there are lots of older films done in and of the moment that didn't realize they were being a cliche. So bravo to Linklater for keeping things neutral where the most out of date stuff are references to the Iraq war or Mason playing a Game Boy Advance SP.

This organic feeling transfers into the pacing of the film. If you were unaware the movie is fifteen minutes short of three hours. Not something you'd see often for a coming of age story like this. But every minute matters here. There is so much story to tell that I can't think of a single moment that should have been cut. If anything I wanted it to be longer! A few extra minutes in each year of his life. This movie could have been four hours and I wouldn't have cared.
It really never drags. There's always something going on and it's never predictable outside of knowing next year he'll be in high school or something like that. Not like the characters know what will come next as you shouldn't either and it was written that way. As I mentioned in the 'History' section this movie was written year by year with the cast heavily involved. It was a part of their life, too, as they lived the characters so it only makes sense to do it that way. As I said before the film is unpredictable because life is unpredictable. You may anticipate living the rest of your life with a new dad and new siblings. What you may not predict is this new dad is a drunken jerk and your mom would leave him within two years anyway. But what happens and how it happens isn't a matter of how predictable it is. It's how realistic it feels.
Can I say this had to be one of the most realistic movies I've ever seen? The sibling relationship between Mason and his sister Samantha feels so natural, as if they were real siblings. Not to mention Mason's parents, while separated, radiate this love for their children I don't even see in some real parents in real life. Both of which were brilliantly portrayed by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. The two most famous faces in the movie. Something that does not damage the film especially since everyone else is an unknown. It's in that lack of familiarity in the actors that keeps this story alive for such a long screen time. It makes them feel far more real.

There were a few times when I felt some performances or execution of acting styles weren't up to snuff. Including the alcoholic Mason's mom marries early on and Mason's photography teacher in high school. Both these characters and a few of the other 'elder' characters will have these words of wisdom or are trying to teach Mason a lesson and sometimes in an overbearing way. In these speeches and anecdotes they come off as pompous and overblown in a way that seems too much to be truly realistic.
Then as the story moved I thought about it more. Rarely are there scenes without Mason, and while it chronicles Mason's life for so long I also feel we see the world through his eyes. When we see his photography in high school they are all or are mostly beautiful images or meaningful images. We see the highlights that he thinks are best. We don't really see a series of crap (and this movie had enough time to show it.) So if we see the world from his eyes it would only make sense we'd see the adults who give him a good talking to in a cartoonish light.
Don't you remember getting a good talking to by a parent, guardian, supervisor, teacher, when you were younger and feeling like they're standing on a soapbox? Well that's how I anticipate Mason felt in those situations and I feel it transferred into the performance of those characters. It all made much more sense in my mind looking at it that way and I hope you can understand what I mean when you finally see it.

I just can't express enough how much this story feels like a real life experience. Part of which is captured brilliantly by the filming method. A similar story could be told using traditional methods of hiring multiple actors for multiple ages but in no way would it give the same results. Really this is the best way to do a coming of age story because you see the actual actors come of age. An inefficient method but it obviously gives results. It had an aging method like cheese or a fine whiskey. It took a long time to make and it's better for it. Not because of a hellish production. Because it required the time.
The results are breathtaking as it feels like real life. With the length of the movie you spend a lot of time with the characters. But unlike other lengthy movies where you see them grow or develop as characters across a few days, months, maybe a couple years at most you really get a grasp of growing up in a non-cliche way.

In the last half of the movie we see Mason get taller, his hair gets longer, and he eventually has a little awkward facial hair like most guys did at one point. I thought about how much he changed over the last hour and half or more. I started thinking about how he looked at the beginning of the movie, not really noticing how much he had grown until it was a very noticeable change whether in his size or his voice. I then realized that while I remember that version of him I couldn't get out of my head his 'current' image at that time. I saw him change little by little over a long period of time. Next thing you know we have a Mason that looks exactly like and nothing like the little boy he used to be when we first met him...
...just like real life.
It's the same when we look in the mirror. The changes are so minor we don't notice until we look back at what we use to be. Whether in physical appearance or in mental attitude.
Watching Boyhood is like reliving your own childhood and not in the way an old video game or cartoon does. Boyhood doesn't take you back to the fun times you had watching some show or listening to some song. It takes you back to the good and the bad. It makes you remember the hard times and how you're better now because you found a way to survive it. It reminds you, you were never alone even though you felt it. It reminds you of your own life, your sibling's life, your child's life, and in the far future it will help your own child understand your life.

Even though this movie is R rated I think it would be good for younger audiences to see it. How young is up to you but when my future child gets to their teen years I could see this as a great story to show them. It doesn't show them anything they wouldn't be seeing or hearing in school so there's no harm. At least if they watch it with a parent there's a teacher by the side to compare and contrast with their own values in raising a family. Something that would be good to discuss for some families as there are a couple brief scenes that don't exactly make religion look like a good thing. They make it seem more silly while never truly slapping it across the face... strangely.
Still, it could be a good teaching tool. To say "here's an example of what you once experienced and here's something you may experience in your future." Making this one of the most groundbreaking and important films in years. I can see this helping out a lot of young and confused kids trying to find their place in the world. That's the problems Mason experienced as many of us did. Also like a lot of us life had it's ups and downs for Mason. There were good times and bad. He may not have been the all star quarterback or the most popular but he had his friends and his own unique ideas to keep him sane.

This is the least cliche coming of age story you may ever see. If you claim it has a lot of familiar elements and see it as a bad thing then take a look at most people's lives and you'll realize that 'cliche' is simply accurate. At least for middle class suburban America.
Mason may have had a different life than you did. Maybe your parents weren't split up. Maybe you had three brothers and no sister. Maybe you were a girl. Regardless you can find something within this that will take you back and help you grow up again more than any other movie out there.

Screw Star Wars, screw Ninja Turtles, screw Nintendo, if you want to really relive your childhood then see Boyhood.

I'm in love with this song by the way.

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