Film Review: The Powerful Illusion of Reality in Brilliant ‘Boyhood’

boyhood1Richard Linklater (who turned 54 on Wednesday) is my age group’s great American filmmaker: Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, School of Rock and the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) haven’t been exclusively about us, but they’ve certainly explored our society and, in the case of the Before films, the similarities and differences between us and others.

Now with Boyhood (which opens in Nashville today at the Belcourt Theatre) his look at modern Americana covers an engrossing 12-year period in the life of a Texas-based boy named Mason. And though much has been made of the fact that filming took that many years (I’ve read critiques comparing its partly documentary feel with Michael Apted’s Up series, though I think that comparison is strained) with the same actors playing him, his sister and his parents, it’s the powerful illusion of reality created by the writer-director Linklater and storytelling colleagues that ultimately makes this brilliantly-drawn film one of this still-young century’s finest dramas.

As we see the journey Mason (Ellar Coltrane) takes from six to 18 we also get the paths of his somewhat-combative sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater), his often-misused mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his initially feckless father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). Just as the children mature physically and emotionally we watch their previously-divorced folks go through new marriages, a return to school, spousal abuse, divorce, added work and home responsibilities and other ups and downs familiar in contemporary family life. And because this is set in the South we get some guns and religion, too, though like the historical events of the period this movie notes we’re not overwhelmed by societal mores; Boyhood is just that, a cinematic glimpse into the rich yet regularly mundane everyday of a youngster’s existence.

boyhood2The knowledge that the narrative course for this 164-minute feature wasn’t the random affair it might appear at first glance makes it even more impressive – as Linklater noted in an interview published by Backstage, “I think people want to project on it a certain randomness, and that was [part of it]. But there was a master plan, a trajectory of all the characters – the beginning, middle, end, and where it was going. I’m a big believer in structure and outlines – I know the end before I start.”

The performers have found the freedom in that well-planned structure to make us believe they’re real. This is most true of the incredible variety of subtle shades Arquette gives to the bedrock figure she inhabits; we see her strength and admire it all the more because Arquette reveals her character’s weak points too. Arquette, who was terrific in her Emmy and SAG Award-winning performance in TV’s “Medium” series as well as her recent appearances in “Boardwalk Empire”, gets the best film role she’s ever had and makes it the most of the opportunity.

Hawke is great showing Mason Sr.’s path from classic sports car to family vehicle; Lorelei Linklater easily takes us from petulant youngster to young woman; and Coltrane, who evolves from sweet-faced first-grader to bohemian-looking high school grad, like his on-camera sibling surrenders himself to the appropriately understated rhythms of this mirror-up-to-nature.

boyhood3Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly provide perfect fly-on-the-wall cinematography, and Sandra Adair’s editing emphasizes the largely easy ebb-and-flow of this piece well. Linklater’s crystal-clear vison of American family life burns on a low but incandescent flame that mesmerizes with its pure realism.

Click here to go to the Belcourt Theatre website for showtimes and tickets. This film is rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use. Click here to visit the film’s official website.


*Photos courtesy IFC Films.

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About Evans Donnell

Evans Donnell is the chief theater, film and opera critic as well as co-founder of ArtsNash. He wrote reviews and features about theater, opera and classical music for The Tennessean from 2002 to 2011. He was the theater, film and opera critic for from 2011 to 2012. Donnell has also contributed to The Sondheim Review, Back Stage, The City Paper (Nashville), the Nashville Banner, The (Bowling Green, Ky.) Daily News and several other publications since beginning his professional journalism career in 1985 with The Lebanon (Tenn.) Democrat. He was selected as a fellow for the 2004 National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center, and for National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) arts journalism institutes for theater and musical theater at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism in 2006 and classical music and opera at the Columbia University School of Journalism in 2009. He has also been an actor (member of Actors Equity Association and SAG-AFTRA), founding and running AthensSouth Theatre from 1996 to 2001 and appearing in Milos Forman's "The People vs Larry Flynt" among other credits. Donnell is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association (