‘Boyhood’: Gutsy gamble pays off

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For 21st Century Media

Can a narrative feature be imbued with as much realism as a documentary? On its face, the notion may seem inconceivable. However, those who regard the premise skeptically should see “Boyhood,” before they dismiss the possibility.
You’ve likely seen plenty of coming of age films. When they transpire over an extended period, multiple child actors are used to portray the same central character.
With “Boyhood,” filmmaker, Richard Linklater, rejected this cinematic convention in favor of a totally innovative approach. The film focuses on Mason, Jr., a six-year-old boy from a small town in Texas. We watch as the towheaded lad matures through childhood, adolescence, and proto-adulthood. The same actor, Ellar Coltrane, portrays the protagonist from start to finish during all of these stages until he reaches 18.
The various individuals around Mason unpredictably enter and exit his world, much as would happen in reality. However, in each case, the character is played by the same actor throughout the film. As “Boyhood” begins, this core group includes Patricia Arquette as his single-mom, Olivia; Ethan Hawke as his absentee father, Mason Sr.; and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as his sister, Samantha, who is two years older than the lead character.
Can you remember back when you were six years old. Did you have any idea who you would be twelve years later? Did you have any inkling of what course your life would take? Do you think that your parents, siblings, or friends had an accurate notion? Linklater’s novel approach embraces and captures the uncertainty of life and all its unpredictable circumstances.
Starting back in 2002, each year Linklater would consult with Coltrane and discuss what had transpired in his life. He would also reference what was going on in the world, such as the ill-considered invasion of Iraq, the election of Barack Obama as the first African-American U.S. President, and of course the release of a recent “Harry Potter” book.
Based on these evolving circumstances, Linklater would write the next installment of “Boyhood.” He would then assemble the requisite cast members and shoot the newly conceived scenes. Then, Linklater and his editor, Sandra Adair would pare down the footage and squirrel it away. As a consequence, “Boyhood” has a distinctly organic quality. At a certain juncture, you will no longer feel as though you are watching a film. Instead, you become emotionally invested in the quandaries faced by Mason, Jr., and the various other characters, just as if they are valued friends of long standing.
Linklater gets considerable mileage out of some of the film’s smaller moments. Witness a scene in a rural church. There, the pastor preaches a parable about the New Testament’s doubting Thomas, Jesus’ singularly hard-to-convince apostle. In another vignette, an older couple, who harbor traditional cultural values, is integrated into the protagonist’s newly blended family. The elderly man lovingly presents Mason, Jr., with his first rifle and a lesson on how to shoot it. These depictions may seem at odds with the progressive, secularist ethos of “Boyhood.” Nevertheless, these parenthetical scenes are adroitly knit into the fabric of the film in a manner, which prove profoundly moving.
In making this film, Linklater took a huge gamble. So many things could have gone awry to scuttle the film and render it a disastrous undertaking. In particular, Linklater had to make certain pivotal casting decisions. Even under optimal circumstances, casting a child actor for a film can be problematic. It is difficult to gauge how they will react to the rigors of being on a set and reciting their lines.
In this case, Linklater had the additional challenge of projecting what Ellar Coltrane would be like over the course of twelve years. Would he succumb to any of the pitfalls of growing up that might preclude him from continuing to participate in this ambitious film? Would his level of dedication to the project remain undiminished or would he decide that he had lost interest in it? Fortunately, in choosing the young neophyte as his lead, Linklater found someone who stayed motivated and grew with the role. Coltrane delivers a naturalistic performance that will endear his character to the audience.
I can’t help but give Linklater enormous credit. He accepted a risky proposition, demonstrated enormous dedication to his artistic vision, and delivered an impressive end product.
This is an undeniably remarkable work, chock-full of verisimilitude. It has no precedent in the history of narrative film. “Boyhood” rejects the neat, three-act formula of most films in favor of capturing the cadences of every-day life.

*** ½ R (for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use) 164 minutes

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