your £$ support needed

part of a small rebellion | by maryann johanson

Boyhood movie review: time in a cinematic bottle

Boyhood green light

An audacious coming-of-age tale unique in the history of cinema; deeply moving and beautifully authentic.
I’m “biast” (pro): I’m a fan of Richard Linklater

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

We’ve seen children grow up onscreen before. Ron Howard. Jodie Foster. All the Harry Potter kids. But not like this. Not in a single film. Richard Linklater had the audacious idea to shoot a story about almost the entire span of one boy’s childhood using the same actors over the course of a dozen years. Audacious because such a long production time — probably the longest ever in the history of cinema — comes with unique challenges. (The most dramatic one might be: What if one of your actors dies midway? Recasting would have ruined the beautiful authenticity the film aims for, and achieves.) Audacious because in retrospect, it seems like such an obvious idea, and yet either no one thought of it before or no one had the nerve to try it.

So screenwriter and director Linklater (Bernie, Me and Orson Welles) — partly making it up as he went, I suspect — shot for a week or so every year between 2002 and 2013 to tell the beginnings of the life story of Texan Mason, from age five through age 18, leaving him just as he is going off to college. (This is a more adventurous follow-on to his trilogy of films about Jesse and Celine, revisiting their lives after decade-long intervals.) His star, Ellar Coltrane (Fast Food Nation), is actually a little bit older than Mason — it appears he was seven or eight when filming began — but that’s no matter: we see him grow from adorable little-boyness through awkward tweendom and into a poised, intelligent, handsome young man about to embark on his own independent life. And by “him,” I mean both Mason and the actor: the two are inseparable here. As Mason’s older sister, Samantha, is inseparable from actress Lorelei Linklater (the filmmaker’s daughter, who is actually only a few months older than Coltrane). And by “inseparable,” I mean in that achingly bittersweet way that only gets more poignant the older we adults get: Kids grow up so fast!

I mean, 2002 is not that long ago. I haven’t changed, but these kids turned into grownups overnight. How is that possible?

Despite the film’s restrictive rating on both sides of the Atlantic, there’s nothing in Boyhood that’s inappropriate for tweens and teens who might be interested in seeing a story that will look more like their actual lives than anything else they are likely to find at the movies. But this is a film for an adult’s nostalgia — look at those colorful iMacs! oh my goodness, a Harry Potter book-release party! — and an adult’s appreciation of speed with which life passes by, and how much messy complication and genuine wonderfulness can be crammed into swiftly disappearing years. Cinema’s capacity for compressing time has never been used like this before, and what could have been a mere gimmick, however ingenious, instead works in exactly the opposite way, creating a profound sense of the passage of time by uniquely marking it in a way we’re all familiar with yet haven’t seen before onscreen.

There is endless drama in Mason’s life thanks to his parents, who are no longer together: Mom’s (Patricia Arquette: Holes, Human Nature) life is her own adventure of romantic troubles and ongoing educational and career advancement, and Dad (Ethan Hawke: The Purge, Before Midnight) is a less steady presence if never one too far away. But few of the events we see Mason go through are momentous, and only occasionally is there any sense that he is moving consciously toward something, anything. One scene with his high-school photography teacher acts as a gentle kick in the butt to kid who often seems directionless, and it’s late in the film, as Mason, who is smart and sensitive, begins to be able to articulate his outlook on the world that Boyhood finds a larger place for itself as an accidental commentary on the directionlessness of America. If the American dream — any American dream — still exists, it certainly doesn’t seem to have made itself known to Mason. And yet it’s with a hopeful optimism that we leave him: he’s still figuring himself out, but he seems confident that answers are to be found, even if he doesn’t quite know what the questions are yet.

So this is it: Richard Linklater has made the ultimate this-boy’s-life movie (with a side dish of early-21st-century American time capsule). It’s a lovely, thoroughly engaging film; it runs almost three hours but it doesn’t feel anything like that. The apex of the genre has been reached. Boyhood cannot be outdone. We have peak appreciation of what it means to be a little boy growing up into a young man.

Everyone can start making movies about little girls and the challenges and wonders of their lives now.

See also my #WhereAreTheWomen rating of Boyhood for its representation of girls and women.

Please support truly independent film criticism
as generously as you can.
support my work at PayPal support my work at Patreon support my work at Ko-Fi support my work at Liberapay More details...

Boyhood (2014)
US/Can release: Jul 11 2014
UK/Ire release: Jul 11 2014

MPAA: rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
BBFC: rated 15 (strong language, sex references, drug use)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a semipublic screening with an audience of critics and ordinary moviegoers

official site | IMDb
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, please reconsider.

  • LaSargenta

    Soooooo…no comparison or synchronicity with Winterbottom’s Everyday? Or is it that the focus is so different?

  • A connection hadn’t even occurred to me. These are two very different films.

  • Elysse15

    Is this your new favorite Linklater flick? Would you say it takes risks in handling sensitive subjects like Mason’s sexual awakening and sexual discovery and such?

  • Jurgan

    Sounds a bit like the Up films, though fictional.

  • Bluejay

    The apex of the genre has been reached. Boyhood cannot be outdone. We have peak appreciation of what it means to be a little boy growing up into a young man.

    Or at least what it means to be a straight, white, middle-class, Christian, American boy growing up into a young man.

    I’d love to see more coming-of-age films about girls — but also about gay or poor or nonwhite or non-Christian or non-American kids of either gender. I’m pretty sure we haven’t reached “peak appreciation” there.

    That being said, this film does sound fantastic on its own merits. I’m looking forward to it!

  • Or at least what it means to be a straight, white, middle-class, Christian, American boy growing up into a young man.

    Yes. I should have been more specific.

  • I think the Jesse & Celine movies are more like the Up films. But I’m sure they were an inspiration.

  • LaSargenta

    The filming method similarities struck me.

  • Tonio Kruger

    In a world where one person’s instant classic is often another’s shameless mediocrity and where one person’s endlessly fascinating storyline is yet another’s endless yawnfest, I sincerely doubt that there’s such a thing as peak appreciation. However, if you prefer that filmmakers move on to another topic, I can sympathize.

  • The kids aren’t really the focus of *Everyday,* and Winterbottom shot in a more documentary style with the kids, where they got to mostly be themselves, not play characters. And the story there is not about childhood or growing up. Also he shot over only about five years, I think.

    But yes, there are certain similarities in method.

  • I was being a *little” bit sarcastic. :->

  • Paul

    Thanks for the explanation. Like LaSargenta, I started thinking Everyday (which I loved) pretty quickly, and I was pretty sure you’d reviewed it. You can see why we would see similarities simply from the length of time the films took to make, but your points about the differences are revealing, I think.

  • RogerBW

    Yeah, still about the boy. Because we haven’t had enough stories about boys. Would it have been less marketable if it had been about a girl? Probably.

  • Fine analysis of an equally fine film!

    Prima facie, Linklater’s movie is about America and, as expected, it does indeed offer sumptuous vignettes of Americana, but, at its core, it’s a movie about the universality of the delicate relationship that exists between a parent and a child. Linklater proves that while ambition does come with a huge price tag, it can still be well rewarded as long as one has the patience and the perseverance to back it up.

    Vintage Linklater, Boyhood’s greatest accomplishment is that it presents life the way it is, neither exaggerating it nor trivializing it. Boyhood leaves us with that bittersweet feeling of nostalgia and love, which, while making us regret the mistakes that we ourselves made in our childhood, also inspires us to help contribute towards creating a better world for the posterity.

    Please do take some time out to read my full review at:


Pin It on Pinterest