Review: Richard Linklater’s unique masterpiece ‘Boyhood’ hits hard and cuts deep

I am nine years old. I am lying in the back of the 1977 Plymouth van my parents are driving. It is the middle of the night, and we are leaving Dunedin on the first leg of our move to Texas. I am crying. My best friend Oli Watt, my next-door neighbor, said goodbye to me earlier in the day, and we’ve made promises to write and call on the phone, but I know that I am leaving behind the life that I’ve enjoyed up to that point and that whatever comes next, it will be different, and I am afraid, and I am sad, and I am sure that nothing will ever be this good again.

I am sixteen years old. I am lying in the back of the car driven by my nineteen year old girlfriend. It is the middle of the night, and while I’m supposed to be at school in the morning, I don’t care at all. I am stoned and drunk and happy. My parents hate this girl that comes to pick me up in the middle of the night, who always knows where there’s a party, who has way more sexual experience than me, and they’ve tried to stop me from seeing her, but I am desperate for what I see as necessary sensual memory, fodder for the writing that I want to make a career of, and I know that it’s destroying the relationship I have with my parents who I adore for adopting me, but I have to do this, I have to live like this, and it is amazing and it is dizzying and I am sure that nothing will ever be this good again.

I am twenty-six years old. I am sitting on the bed in the room I share with the woman I am about to marry, and she has just told me that she is leaving. I am yelling at her, but I can’t hear myself. I’m thinking about all the plans, all the conversations, all the promises, and I am thinking about the child we almost had, the choice that was made, the horrible space it left between us that nothing has worked to fill. I am crippled by both the love I have for her and the yawning suspicion that I really am a terrible person, not worth the love she’s wasted on me, and I know that if she leaves, I’m done, there’s no way I ever find anyone else, and I am sure that nothing will ever be this good again.

I am thirty-five years old. I am standing in one of the delivery rooms at the Cedar-Sinai hospital. It is the middle of the night, and Dr. Klein hands me my first-born son. I am crying. This tiny, screaming, beautiful creature in my hands represents my first blood connection to any other human being on the planet, and I am suddenly overwhelmed with a feeling of love so intense that it takes my breath away, and the life that I’ve lived up until this moment is over and now I am about something else and someone else and whatever comes next, it will be different, and I am thrilled, and I am overjoyed, and I am sure that nothing will ever be this good again.

I am forty-four years old. I am sitting on the couch in the playroom of the house I bought. It is just after ten in the morning, and my kids are staring at me with wide eyes because I have just told them that I am moving out. I am numb. These two trusting, sweet souls have just been presented with the first genuine pain in their lives, and I am the cause of it. The life that they’ve lived until this moment is over and now we’re going to become a former family, a divided home, and the relationship I’ve had with the boys, that nightly closeness that we’ve known their whole lives now sacrificed in favor of some hope that we might find individual happiness where we could not as a couple, and I am sure that nothing will ever be this good again.

Those moments all exist as active present tense moments for me. My memory is not some dusty scrapbook I flip through. As with anyone, memory for me is a river that I stand in, and it is always flowing around me, always active, always threatening to wash me away if I let it. I can think of any of a hundred milestones from my life as a child, as a young adult, as a son, as a father, as a professional, as a lover, as a failure, as a success, and they are right there, instantly alive for me.

This past Sunday, my oldest son turned nine years old, and I think of how I just held him in my hands, just cut the cord that bound him to my wife, just diapered him, just helped him learn to walk, to talk, to laugh, to read… and now he’s nine, halfway to eighteen, halfway to what they consider adulthood, halfway to the place where Richard Linklater wraps up his lovely, evocative, quietly devastating “Boyhood.” My youngest son is six, the age where the film begins for Mason, played in real time by Ellar Coltrane, and I am realizing that it’s going to fly by for him as well. They will both be gone before I realize it, and that knowledge is like a physical blow, a horrifying sadness that underscores even the happiest moments that we have.

There’s not a parent alive who will be able to shake the haunting beauty of Linklater’s latest film, a flawed but vibrant masterpiece, but saying that implies that non-parents will be less impressed with this bold and brilliant movie. Nonsense.

This is a movie about the entire messy painful amazing thrilling heartbreaking ride called life, told in a way that makes it unique among narrative features. It is the sort of movie that could only have been made by one person, and that defies easy summary. I can tell you what it is very quickly, but to try to impart the actual experience of watching it… that seems almost confoundingly complex. I have chewed on this review for weeks. I have thrown out entire versions of it. And the real reason I’ve had so much trouble is because I am in a moment of flux unlike any I’ve ever faced before.

By the time many of you read this on Thursday, I will have picked up keys to an apartment where I am about to move. By myself. Sure, I have a second room for my kids, but I’m not going to be able to dress this up or make it sounds any better than it is. I have broken my marriage. I have thrown in the towel. I have made a decision that the only way forward is apart, and that moment is finally here, after years of slow-motion pain, and when I saw “Boyhood,” which deals with broken marriages and emotional hollows and the milestones of how we become emotionally mature, or not, it left me ruined. It feels too raw, too real, and I suspect that is entirely the point.

In some ways, “Boyhood” simply feels like part of an ongoing conversation that I’ve been having with my friends, my readers, and my family since the day my first son was born in 2005. He’s so grown-up right now that I’m starting to have genuine anxiety about what happens when he moves away. But then I think about the life changes he’s been through, and the life changes that are still to come in his immediate future, and I worry that he’s so young that I can still totally destroy him as a person. He’s got an enormous personality already, but I can see that he’s searching already for answers to larger questions, for some sense of defining identity. He’s at a vulnerable age, and I want nothing more than to shield him from any pain, any heartbreak… and I can’t. That’s impossible, and it’s not my job. Pain and heartbreak are two of the things that define us, and he’ll have his share, just like everyone else. All I can do is be there to help him try to make sense of it.

My other son is at that age right now where life is nothing but imagination and play and emotional waves that he barely understands, and he is sweet in a way I can’t even fully understand. He teaches me about love and patience and kindness every day, and he does it without knowing he’s doing it. I watch him, and I listen to him, and can’t believe I have this person in my life, that anyone would trust a soul as sweet as that to me, and I think about how this divorce is going to blow his world up, and I hate myself a little, no matter how right I know I am about the choice I’ve made.

Much will be written about the unusual way that Linklater approached the making of this film, and deservedly so. No other narrative filmmaker has ever used time as a tool the way Linklater has. The “Before” series is fascinating because of the real-life seven year gaps between each of the films and the way he builds that into the stories he’s telling. With “Boyhood,” he’s done something even bolder, shooting a film in small pieces every year for twelve continuous years, following the life of a boy from when he is six years old to when he is eighteen, using the same actors for the entire film. Talk about a gamble. What if the boy he chose simply didn’t want to be an actor at some point in the process? What if he’d become troubled or damaged in some way, or if there’d been some tragedy that sidelined the entire thing? What if the rest of the cast had fallen apart? Twelve years of returning to the same project, a bit at a time, even as he made other films and worked on other ideas… that’s amazing dedication, and regardless of the end result, I’d be impressed by the effort.

But to have that experiment result in something as wise and heartfelt and piercingly insightful as “Boyhood” is beyond impressive. It’s a minor miracle, and it may well be the crowning accomplishment in a career that has always been quietly dazzling. There are plenty of filmmakers who make more noise with their accomplishments than Linklater, but I feel like the films he makes are going to last longer, and they burrow deeper. In this case, the way he’s structured this movie is the masterful touch that makes the difference between something that is simply an experiment or something that matters. There’s no clear moment between each of the years here. When we meet Mason, he’s lying on his back in the grass, looking up at the sky, in trouble with his school. He’s six. The last time we see him in the film, he’s a tall gangly college freshman who looks older than is real-life eighteen, worn down in some essential way by all the living that Linklater packs into the almost three-hour running time. In between, everything moves like liquid, one year cascading into the next. His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) don’t live together. They can’t. There was obviously something very real and passionate between them, but by the time Mason is six, it’s given way to something rancid, some permanent divide that is more important than the love, and both Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are forced to grow up alongside these people who are obviously still figuring themselves out.

In fact, if Linklater’s film makes any point, it is that there is no moment where we are finished, when we are complete, when we have learned all we will learn or grown all we will grow or become whatever it is that we will become. Boyhood is not a stage of our lives. It is a state of grace. It is a moment in which we have yet to fully allow in the world, and if I could make it last forever for my own kids, I would. It is an illusion, though, and it is already slipping away from them, tainted and poisoned by everything else that life has in store for them, ruined in some way by the choices I’ve made, that their mother has made, by the choices I made thirty years ago and the ones I’ll make tomorrow. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke both had to know when they signed on to make this film that they weren’t doing anything that they’d ever done before, and that they were going to have to give up pieces of themselves to the movie. Because of the way Linklater works, you can’t just show up, read some lines, and then walk away for another year. These characters feel like they were carved out of the actors themselves, from their real highs, their real lows, and it is fascinating to watch them age for more than a decade over the space of three hours. It’s safe to say that Arquette has never been better in her entire career, and she’s never had a character this real and this deeply realized. Watching the way Olivia tries to take control of her life and the way she survives some terrible decisions she makes and the way she sacrifices for her kids, it’s apparent that Olivia knows just how rough things are, but that she’s unwilling to let life defeat her. Her strength is in marked contrast to the way Mason Sr. seems to skate along the surface of his life with his kids. He’s barely a father. He’s like some weird wild family friend who blows through on occasion to dazzle the kids with what seems like cool, but which is fear and weakness and a sad understanding of just how ill-prepared he is to raise anyone.

What really surprised me is how light and how loose “Boyhood” is. For the longest time, it doesn’t really feel like you’re watching something calculated or crafted. It’s just this life you step into, and it’s already going when you get there, and it’ll keep going after you leave. But for the time the film is playing, it’s always engaging, always interesting, funny and smart and sincere. I think there are some wrong notes along the way. While I totally get the point of the first marriage we see Arquette settle into after Mason Sr. leaves, I don’t think the actor who plays her husband is particularly good. He telegraphs his choices in a way that most of the rest of the cast does not. Doesn’t matter in the overall impact, but there is something uneven about it, something distracting.

The real star of the film is Ellar Coltrane, and watching him age, watching the way he charts the growth of this boy, is a miracle. I love that he goes through a genuinely awkward phase in his teen years, and I think it’s beautiful to watch him bloom into this very real relationship with his first serious girlfriend (Zoe Graham). There are so many different movies all wrapped into one here that I feel like we’re not watching a movie at all. You could watch this and pretend that any of the characters are the lead, and the way Linklater’s made it, you could probably defend that position. His daughter is exceptional as Samantha, Mason’s older sister, and the trust she showed in doing this for her father, allowing him to chart her growth during what can be an incredibly difficult time in any life, is extraordinary.

I doubt Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly will be nominated for awards for cinematography, or that Sandra Adair’s editing will be recognized, but what they’ve done is invisible and epic and moving, and all of it is part of the same amazing experiment, all of it in service of making this feel real. I feel like I want to see the movie again immediately, but also like I’m afraid to watch it a second time. I am not overstating the case when I say that the film landed on me hard enough to leave a bruise, and that I am still wrestling with the full weight of what Linklater accomplished here.

“Boyhood” is more than a movie; it is a vibrant, living thing, and it is beautiful, and it is sad, and it is wise, and it is sprawling, and it is intimate, and it is painful, and it is more than any filmmaker could have intended, and, yes… when it comes to trying to capture truth in a way that cannot be argued or denied or even summarized… I am sure that nothing will ever be this good again.

“Boyhood” opens in limited release on Friday.