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Review: Portrait of the Artist in Boyhood

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“He stood at the window of the empty cafe and watched the activites in the square and he said that it was good that God kept the truths of life from the young as they were starting out or else they’d have no heart to start at all.”
― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

In most Hollywood movies, memories of childhood are played in flashback. Younger actors are chosen to play older ones. History is viewed in hindsight, with writers and directors paying careful attention to what lasted, what people still talk about. But Richard Linklater chose to do the opposite. He filmed a story beginning at boyhood and filming the big changes in real time, over the course of a twelve-year period. You’ve heard all of this, of course, if you’ve been listening to interviews and reading reviews. You’ve heard everything — how great it is, how moving it is, and how ultimately life-affirming it is. This cannot be argued. It is unequivocal. This is a great film.

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Boyhood is a story of a boy who comes of age before our eyes, played with spectacular depth by Ellar Coltrane. He struggles through bullies and the trauma of being a sensitive artist growing up in Texas where he’s expected to be a macho football player, at the very least. He is expected to be a “man.” The kind of man he will become is the best kind. But he won’t know that, and we can’t know that either, until he grows up and finds his way.

Despite the fact that Linklater had been filming this movie for 12 years it feels as fresh as if he’d filmed it in 12 months. He never loses command of this story, one he honed carefully over a decade. This was a deliberate telling of, well, life. You might be inclined to think it’s a stunt or some useless gimmick, like why would anyone bother with all of that trouble? But it ultimately makes such a profound imprint while watching it that it achieves what most art simply cannot — it gives you back what time has taken.

In the blink of an eye you raise a child. It feels like work at first because the car alarm is going off every five minutes — they’re crying, they’re hungry, they’re tired, they’re having a tantrum, vaccines, school clothes, lunch boxes, hurt feelings, failed tests, successes! Before you know it, your squishy helpless baby is all grown up. They pull away from hugs. They think for themselves. They fall in and out of love. Good things happen to them. Bad things happen to them. The most surprising part of it all is you realize how much you like them. You like them so much you might never want them to leave. You like them so much you want to do it all over again. All of it. All of the diaper changing and bad Halloween costumes, the cavities, the tangled hair — the lectures, the time outs. Suddenly it comes flooding back as all good memories. The thing you don’t expect is that you’ll look in the mirror when it is all over and see yourself, only much older. Much, much older.

At a time when Hollywood is body-slamming up against all that visual effects can do, Boyhood comes along and shows what kind of level of difficulty there is in simply capturing life in real time. It is more dazzling, more breathtaking than any visual effect you will see this year and that includes what’s opening against it at the box office, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, which arguably shows the best visual effects ever put on screen. In the end, what Dawn seeks is the same as what Boyhood seeks — to give us realism through the imagination to do what art does best: project whole human truths.

Linklater, it must be said, depends heavily on his actors. He chooses the right people for the parts, one of his gifts as a filmmaker. Ethan Hawke is once again Linklater’s muse, doing his best work. Patricia Arquette surprises at every turn, never playing the saintly mother as is so often depicted in any Hollywood movie written by male-centric dumb people. She is someone who wants to be a whole person on her own, to educate herself, take care of her kids and do some good in the world. She is also the someone who does the hard work of parenting while the absent father gets to slip in and out, and be the “cool” parent. The mother is often stuck with the harder job, all of the things that make her children not like her as much. The fun dad gets all of the credit usually, while the unfun mother is the drag. That is, until kids become parents and then they realize. Linklater is too smart, and Arquette way too smart, to let that cliche live and breath in Boyhood. What we see here is a mother who is also a person, capable of making terrible mistakes but also of raising two really wonderful kids. Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei is plucky and vibrant as the cooler older sister, and most of the other supporting characters are also so refreshingly real. Linklater was determined to mostly cast unknowns, although sometimes a few familiar faces show up.

Linklater also infused Boyhood with a love of music, which threads itself throughout the film in various ways, from marking a time and place in history (from Coldplay to Lady Gaga), to aiding some of the characters through stages in their lives. This entire story takes place within the framework of 9/11 and the two Iraq wars. Though that plays in the background to provide context, it does mark this film in history — we are probably too close to it now to see what that will ultimately mean.

What is probably most surprising of all about Boyhood is that it doesn’t hinge on the more dramatic life events — cancer or car crashes, cutting, suicide or rape — domestic violence at the hands of terrible stepfathers is the most drama we see here. The majority of this three-hour film is filled with the things about life that break your heart the hardest: the magic, the delirious beauty in the every day.

Each of us will come at Boyhood from a different perspective. I came at it as both a mother and a child who came of age under a parade of asshole boyfriends of my hard working single mom. I came to it as a woman who did not always have the best choice of men but who decided at some point to just not parade those men into my daughter’s life after one particularly bad one. I came to it as a mom raising a child and watching her grow so fast I kept wanting to hit the pause button. Watching Ellar Coltrane grow in Boyhood I felt the same way. Each time something happened, nothing particularly dramatic, time would jump forward and they’d all be older. I wanted to pause it, to stop it, to make him stop growing before my eyes. It was too fast.

My daughter who is 16 now came at it from a decidedly girl’s perspective. She wanted the movie to be more about the daughter, like, why didn’t we know what she wanted to do with her life? Girls have so much more on their plate than boys growing up — body image, period, the male gaze, mean girls. But I had to try to tell her that it wasn’t that story. It was more about Linklater’s experience coming of age. We paused to reflect the sorry truth that when it’s a man’s story it’s universal but when it’s a woman’s story it is marginalized. It felt like a scene out of the movie. I was awash in pride at my daughter’s ability to think that way. I told her to revisit the film when she gets older, maybe after she figures out what she wants to do with her life.

At the end of Boyhood my heart stopped and the tears were pouring out of my eyes. I felt like the most embarrassing kind of mom because I wasn’t crying out of sadness — but out of pride. I was so proud to see this boy become such a formidable man. And to be sitting next to my own daughter, a person I admire so much. Despite having grown with me, a single mother broke for most of her early life, despite the bad boyfriends, she is such a smart and compassionate kid. It all feels so accidental. You stand back in awe: what did I even do?

In real life we might wonder, is that all there is to it? We grow up at the hands of everyone we brush up against. Our parents, our siblings, our friends, our stepparents, our teachers, our girlfriends and boyfriends, strangers, good people, bad people, wars and presidents, sex, drugs and rock n’ roll. We are a mosaic of those imprints. They make their mark on us and eventually we emerge as who we are. Boyhood reminds us that much of life is figuring that out. It also reminds us that once we do figure that out we eventually uncover an even bigger truth: our lives are other people.

But you know, you can’t stop time. It’s one of two truths about this world. People die and time marches forward. But I guess you kind of feel like you can get a handle on it and that at some point you will not be carried forward by it but rather at the wheel of it, making it go where you want it to go. But this film, perhaps more than any other I’ve ever seen, shows you that you don’t and can’t control that part of time. All you can do is hope for the best and reach for what matters most in the wake of that truth.

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44 Comments on this Post

  1. murtaza

    Simply the best review you’ve ever written Sasha, it comes from your heart and has touched mine.

  2. Great piece. Period.

  3. mileshigh

    Beautiful written review, Sasha! And I love the collage. My two youngest siblings are the ages of the kids in BOYHOOD and I had a very emotional connection watching the movie. It isn’t the same as being a parent, but they are two individuals that I love and even helped raise.

    I find it hard to believe there will be anything better this year than BOYHOOD. Is it too soon to talk Oscar? Im conflicted to even bring it up but it is THAT good!

  4. I loved this movie so much. But honestly the first thing that I thought after I saw the movie was “I can’t wait to hear what Sasha has to say about this movie.” I had such high hopes for this movie and I think I may have even liked it more than I thought I would. This review is just what I hoped it would be. As heartbreaking and touching as the movie. I hope everyone goes to see this movie. You just can’t not relate to this movie if you have ever been a son or a brother or a daughter or a sister or a mother or father. And those of us that grew up a little different or “alt” will relate to it even more. One of the best portrayals of growing up in a divorced family that I have ever seen. And I really hope that Linklater has tons of extra footage so that he can make “Girlhood” next.

  5. Sasha Stone

    Thanks you guys. :) Means a lot. Yes, Brad, that would be fantastic if he did do that. I wonder if he does have that footage? I love these experimentations filmmakers have been doing lately, like this and the Eleanor Rigby thing. Kind of cool. I really loved how it was about a boy, yes, but it wasn’t about the boy who saves the day or becomes a hero or gets the cute girl or whatever. It felt so genuinely real…I’ve watched my daughter and her best friend grow up together, my nieces and nephews too – I’ve never seen a movie really get to how that feels, to watch someone grow up into a person. It’s just so surreal…I didn’t want the movie to end…

  6. Philipp

    Thanks for the review. I asked for it yesterday and here it is, a wonderful, personal article. And I love the fotographs, too.

  7. Bob Burns

    boys don’t have body image issues?

    great piece. Thank you.

  8. I am weeping having read this piece of writing, which I hesitate to call a review. I am so moved, and at the same time, gutted. This stands alone as it’s own work; the movie will be a bonus.

    Miss Stone, I don’t have the words right now to express to how perfectly, beautifully, and precisely you have put your heart into words here, all I can say is thank you for doing it.

  9. I have read a shit-load of reviews for this movie {you know, the usual suspects}, but this is the most personal Sasha. And maybe the best one. What is great about these reviews is that they get the concept, the real-time account brought to us through cinema – something so structured and contrived {and I say that with a great, great passion for cinema}. These reviews are not just fucktards on Youtube befuddled as to why the director did not just cast the right age cast so he did not have to hang around. Linklater brings us actual life, as it is it seems, over actual time. That part of life when you really change.

    I also loved how, even before you really got into the movie, you were talking about Emma without directly telling us. It was relevant, it was sweet, and it was true. I could almost see you welling up writing it as I was reading your words. It hit me like a bucket of cold water when you mention the urge to pause your kid’s life. I feel that about my daughter, that urge to slow things down, fear I will forget her smaller and less wise. And she is not even two years-old until next month.

    The wife and I have not been to the cinema for so long {that little girl being the main, completely innocent, reason} – but enough is enough, we have to go see this. Though it does not look like appearing in our town any time soon,

  10. steve50

    *boom*
    That’s all.

    Perfection, Sasha.

  11. Jack Hailey

    Thanks, Sasha. This reminds me of how moved I’ve been by moments in the Michael Apted’s Seven Up series: Suzy, lost at 21 who’s arrived at 28 somehow whole; Neil, mentally ill, at 35 living in a trailer on a remote Scottish seaside, who’s rescued by friendship; Paul, the shy lad brought into full being by love; Sue and Lynn, who find careers and break the restraints of class. It isn’t just that time flies like an arrow, but that moments and other people matter.

  12. Alan of Montreal

    Don’t you think Ellar Coltrane should be listed in the tracker under “best actor”? Stranger things have happened.

  13. It seems too pedagogical to be challenging.

  14. Great piece!! Cannot wait to see this next weekend. What are initial thoughts on possible oscar NOMS?

  15. Bob Burns

    The Academy would attract honor onto itself by awarding this film.

    That said, I agree with Alan. If Boyhood is a serious BP contender, Coltrane and Arquette and Hawke are, too. Especially Coltrane.

    i agree

  16. Jesus Alonso

    There’s something that should be pointed out about Linklater’s project, and probably someone will, in the future, trying to diminish the scope of his bet. This is the same bet Warner Brothers did with a bunch of unknowns with the Harry Potter franchise, knowing that the casting for the first film should be working by the last. So, Linklater hasn’t been first, if we consider the whole Harry Potter saga as one (which we should) but we’re talking about something different, more grounded, here. Both have been enormous risks by an studio and an artist, and can’t be really compared to each other, even if both ideas are parallel, focusing on the turn from childhood to teenager by using real time passing to tell each story, the fantasy one and the grounded one.

  17. Ailidh

    “But it ultimately makes such a profound imprint while watching it that it achieves what most art simply cannot — it gives you back what time has taken.” Beautiful. Beautiful review. As a mother, you had me at “the delirious beauty in the every day”. “Boyhood” is the simplest thing: children grow up, but they do it so fast and we work so hard, we never get the chance to stop time and contemplate how miraculous the whole mundane process is.

    Yours is the most moving review – Manohla Dargis comes second. The film may be called “Boyhood”, but it’s mothers who are going to be the most marked by it.

  18. I MUST SEE THIS MOVIE. It’s half through the year and Oscar season not official here yet and this movie is something!

  19. Jonathan Taylor

    You’re right, it is unquestionably, unimpeachably a great film. Want to see it again, and again.

  20. And then in the end of the year, when this film will need the critics to hold it in the Oscar race, they will award something else that opened closer to the end of the year (and likely more mainstream) despite having given the best reviews of the year to Boyhood.

  21. Tero Heikkinen

    I stay away from reviews nowadays as they affect my own opinion too much, but I had to read this – knowing that Sasha doesn’t shy away from talking about her own life and experiences. This very personal review made me even more anxious to see it and it doesn’t come out in Finland until October. Really!?!

    I wonder if I get as much out of it as parents do. Sort of OT: Parenthood is still the best Ron Howard film.

    About Harry Potter. The kids signed up for the first two or three pictures first and WB saw if they are fit to continue. A big movie franchise good have easily replaced an actor or two (the weakest link, Radcliffe should’ve been replaced very early on), but they went with it. Harry Potter was not the first with this concept either, but maybe in English language cinema it’s rare/unheard of. But it’s hard to actually finish stuff, as Boyhood has successfully done. For example, Lars von Trier started a 33-year film project in 1991 and that movie was supposed to come out in 2024, but it was abandoned as some of the actors died during the production. Facts of life. That was released as a short in 2010.

  22. Ray Westbrook

    Sasha, I teach high school journalism in an all boys school, and I must say this is some of the most brilliant writing I’ve ever been privileged to read — not just in reviews or criticism, but in any kind of writing, period. It is lucid and passionate, with clear sentences and crystal-clear word choices. I hope you don’t mind if I use it in my beginning journalism class this fall (again, not when I teach review writing, but when I begin the year to show my boys that this is what the craft and art of writing is all about. Simply brilliant, Sasha!

    And, I can’t wait to see this movie!

    — Ray Westbrook, St. Mark’s School of Texas, Dallas.

  23. Beautiful review. I got choked up. Look forward to lots of Boyhood discussions for many months.

  24. Jesus Alonso

    Tero, agree on Radcliffe, he should have been recast for the third film (but it was the one in which he actually improved), but Watson and Grint were perfect, specially Rupert, who nailed the character in all films (and was the stand out in Deathly Hallows, Part I, in my opinion). Linklater’s project is more risky, and about von Trier’s I admit I always thought it was a hoax. By the way, noticed on FB we have some friends in common, living close to me!

  25. Mark F.

    Very nice review, Sasha. I can’t wait to see this film!

  26. Sasha Stone

    I’m so overwhelmed by the generous comments here. Thank you. I really appreciate it!!

  27. I thought about the comparison with the Harry potter franchise too. Or the 7 up series.

    However what makes Boyhood stand out on its own is that the compression of time happens within one movie. In under three hours you see Mason grow from 6 – 18 years with every year represented. It creates a movie experience that is truly unique, both in storytelling and empathy.

  28. “Unlike the Before movies, this wasn’t improvisation.”

    The Before movies may feel improvisatory, but Linkletter/Hawke/Delpy have repeatedly affirmed that every word in all three movies was meticulously scripted. They weren’t improvising on set.

    Linkletter explained that every year he filmed Boyhood he would spend 3 days improvising/workshopping scenes with the actors, then in the next 4 days film fully scripted scenes he wrote incorporating what came out of the workshop process.

  29. Clayton

    What a wonderful piece on a film that touched me in a way no other ever has. Thanks for the vulnerability and wisdom, Sasha. One of my favorite pieces you’ve ever written.

  30. I just got invited to a screening and Q&A afterwards with Linklater afterwards! Awesome.

  31. Keil S.

    Hollywood and the Oscars will still likely give Linklater the cold shoulder, no matter how many masterpieces he creates.

  32. Tero Heikkinen

    Jesus Alonso: Yes, I work in one of the bars that our mutual friends own. World is a small place, at least Europe is.

  33. Linklater has been nominated by the Academy 3 times. How exactly is this giving him the cold shoulder?

  34. Ailidh

    There is a great “conversation with Richard Linklater”, the interview being conducted by Matthew McConaughey in the current Interview Magazine, funny and very revealing about Linklater and how he works. Fascinating conversation between two close friends.

    http://www.interviewmagazine.com/film/richard-linklater

  35. M1, 2 nominations. Though he was nominated twice for adapted screenplay, I feel like his movies, not him, are getting the cold shoulder outside of 1 nomination. And “cold shoulder” is a phrase I rarely like to use when discussing snubs. The Before series could easily have gotten another 5 nominations between the whole trilogy yet, for being the most well reviewed movies of their years, could only manage just 2. I think Hollywood will greatly admire Boyhood. Will the Oscars? I’m not sure…but after the Before trilogy I think people in the industry took notice of what he’s been doing with his career and will want to honor him with this movie in some way.

  36. Sasha, this was a beautiful heartfelt piece of writing.

    I saw “Boyhood” on Sunday and it was just magical – I doubt I will see a better film this year.

  37. Dave L

    Thank you for sharing this with us all. It’s a beautiful piece. Bravo from Australia.

  38. Haslyn Roberts

    The article was great. But I wanted to clarify something that you stated in your article. According to Richard Linklater, all the Before movies are actually scripted.

  39. RedSoxNation

    Lovely review with only one quibble. The Before movies are NOT improvisation. Linklater, Delpy and Hawke would pull their hair out at that comment. The trio has repeatedly expressed their frustration that their films are improvisation when in fact, they are carefully scripted and filmed as such. When Delpy had minor Oscar talk for Sunset, during a shitty year for women in film which made it all the more exasperating she wasn’t nominated, Ethan Hawke campaigned hard for her and said that people think their scenes are improv because they work so damn hard on making their dialogue appear as natural as possible.

    With all that said, I can’t help but think blah blah blah blah double blah. I loved Boyhood but Linklater isn’t a Hollywood shmoozer. Sunset and Midnight should have been nominated in multiple categories at their Oscars but were given screenplay nomination as a consolation prize. No one campaigns for this man’s films. Like the Before trilogy, this movie opens to rave reviews in the summer and will be forgotten come Oscar time. It will never be forgotten by me though.

  40. Sasha, that was a killer review. Well done.

    I’ve seen Boyhood twice now and loved it the first time. Or felt I had to love it. The second time, I kind of got over it.

    Here’s what’s great about Boyhood: it does something very interesting with success and without any huge mistakes. Is it brilliant? No. It is an impressive piece of craftsmanship, but the script is simply over-expository, and the movie itself does not use its conceit to any truly great lengths.

    And so it is with so much of Linklater. Before Sunrise is a great idea for a movie, whose conceit is also predicated on naturalism and time. Why is it not that great? Because the script isn’t that great. And it’s kind of dull. Before Sunset is, unimpeachably, a great film, however. But then look at Waking Life: that movie is, quite simply, a turd. Dazed and Confused – again, a great idea (a modern American Graffiti) but it’s not really that great a movie, if we’re able to be honest with ourselves.

    So Boyhood, like Before Sunrise, is not as great as we might think because its script simply isn’t tight. It’s a bunch of decent short films strung together, but we cannot think of it as naturalistic, which is what the concept truly deserved.

    That said, it’s impressive in many ways, and Ethan Hawke is fantastic.

  41. I wish the improvisation remark would be corrected. Here’s Linklater’s comment on the idea that Before movies have any improvisation.

    Richard Linklater[S] 72 points 1 year ago

    1) The percentage of improv in the 3 movies is exactly 0%. It’s all scripted and rehearsed until Julie and Ethan practically lose their minds.

  42. RedSoxNation, I thought we took that line out several days ago. Sometimes the revisions don’t stick. It’s gone now. Thanks!

  43. RedSoxNation

    Yay! Thanks, Ryan. :)

  44. Sasha as a mother of two, (16, 14) your article made me cry. So powerful. Beautifully written. Honestly, probably one of the best pieces I have ever read. It came from your heart. From a place I understand. I am so excited to see this film. Bravo Sasha.

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