There are essentially two ways to look at ‘Boyhood,’ as exemplified by the older man sitting next to me sighing derisively every 5-10 minutes, just as I was summoning every ounce of traditional masculinity to keep from sobbing snot bubbles into my milk duds. See, on the one hand, ‘Boyhood’ is an almost three hour movie in which nothing much really happens. On the other hand, ‘Boyhood’ is an almost three hour movie in which nothing much really happens EXCEPT THAT YOU GET TO WATCH A FAMILY GROW. Imagine trying to hold back the flood of emotions when the boy you met at the age of six goes off to… oops, no spoilers. Suffice it to say, ‘Boyhood’ is like all the joy of parenthood without all the hassle of a willing lover or background checks. And that heartless old man can kiss my ass.
As you may have heard by now, ‘Boyhood’ has one big gimmick: it’s a family drama following a boy (Ellar Coltrane), his mother (the fabulous Patricia Arquette), sister (Lorelei Linklater, who doesn’t really look like her family, but that’s okay), and sometimes-absent father (Ethan Hawke) shot over the course of 12 years with the same cast. Now, I don’t know about you, but when I hear “164-minute gimmick movie,” I immediately yell for the garçon to bring my carriage round. In a gimmick movie, the making-of becomes a bigger story than the plot. “Did you know he shot the entire film inside a coffin??” “Did you know the entire film takes place inside a cave?” “Did you know it’s told from the perspective of a horse?”
Gimmick movies are usually just a dick-measuring exercise for the director, because the truth is, once a story’s on the screen, no one really cares how it got there. What separates ‘Boyhood’s gimmick is that, well, for one, it’s a really good gimmick. It’s not a wacky, one-off idea like combining Abe Lincoln and vampires that’s tired after the first use of it, it’s something that makes you wonder “why hasn’t anyone thought of this before?” And in this case, the only answer, the obvious answer, is that it’s really, really hard. But it actually makes perfect sense. It’s a coming-of-age movie where you get to watch the characters actually come of age. Imagine that.
The movie’s central conceit is certainly its central draw, highlighted by the fascinating journey through lead Ellar Coltrane’s increasingly disastrous hair and grooming decisions. And God, I would’ve killed for that kid’s all-American hair model mane growing up. It looks just as good greasy or clean, spiky or flowing! Fix your hair, kid! You owe it to we the frizzy masses! Anyway, in a lot of ways, it’s a movie built out of mostly inconsequential conversations. Which I realize makes it sound tedious and borderline unwatchable, and that same surface assessment is probably the reason I’ve never been able to bring myself to watch Linklater’s Sunrise/Sunset trilogy. But I defy you not to fall in love with these characters. In fact, the movie is almost a dare. That Linklater doesn’t need to put his characters through any great trials, make them slum orphans or dyslexic holocaust victims, or really put them through really anything too far removed from the experience of the average American in order to get you hopelessly attached to them by the end of the movie. It’s a hell of a magic trick.
Beyond the gimmick, ‘Boyhood’ plays to Linklater’s strengths. Over the course of a career that has been a bit hit and miss since giving the world Wooderson all those years ago, but two things Linklater has been consistently great at are channeling the glow of nostalgia, and depicting knuckleheads who are just the right mix of clownish, antagonistic, and sympathetic. Whereas, say, Aaron Sorkin loves to write David Mamet-esque verbal ping pong rallies between hyper-literate stand-ins for himself (“Ya think?!”), Linklater has that special talent for building intelligent interactions between a couple of inarticulate dopes. Few pull it off as well as Linklater (Sopranos creator David Chase comes to mind), and he’s really gunning for the Burger King crown of undisputed Dipshit Whisperer here. It’s a beautiful thing to watch someone write teenage boys who talk like teenage boys, without softening it for the non-pubescent.
In the same way, conversations that seemed to be intended as profound observations in, say, ‘Waking Life,’ are treated with a healthy dose of critique in ‘Boyhood.’ Where, sure, maybe there’s something profound in what that guy just said, but maybe he’s just being a pretentious 18-year-old. Some of the conversations have gravity, some of them don’t. There are moments of high drama, but ‘Boyhood’ never slips into melodrama because it isn’t about one issue that the characters have to solve. It’s simply this gradual evolution, this series of moments, all the milestones, sticking points, songs, grudges, and inside jokes that eventually make up a life.
As much as it’s about Ellar Coltrane (he kind of sounds like an African warlord who gave himself that name) and his awkward journey to adulthood, his castmates’ evolutions are no less compelling. I didn’t even know you could go through an awkward phase in your late thirties, but Patricia Arquette does, before coming out the other end a more distinguished version of that irresistible nymph from ‘True Romance.’ God, that bone structure. Ethan Hawke gets weasellier and weasellier as his character gets more likable, and by the time he tells Coltrane “I wish I’d been a better parent,” you just want to give him a hug and a noogie all at the same time, his pedophile mustache notwithstanding.