Have you ever been truly transformed by a film?
Have you ever had the experience of truly having your heart or your mind or your entire life direction shaped by the experience of sitting down in a movie theater and surrendering yourself to a filmmaker's vision of life or love or hope or despair?
For most of us, we head on over to our local multiplex hoping for a couple hours of escapist entertainment or, perhaps when we're surrendering to our nobler sides, we hope to spend quality time with our friends and/or families or we simply hope to discover some hidden gem of a film.
For most of us, I think, the idea of truly surrendering ourselves to the world of a film seems foreign and maybe even a little frightening. For true cineastes, however, it's the ultimate moviegoing experience - the discovery of a film so transcendent and so immersive that you leave the theater a different human being.
I believe that movies can change the world.
It is rare. When it happens, it is sublime. When it happens, I can feel every molecule within my DNA shifting as I become transformed by this brave new world that I have just encountered.
Sometimes, it's with a "perfect" film.
Sometimes, it's with a film that may not always seem perfect yet somehow gels together so beautifully that its imperfect pieces create a sort of cinematic perfection.
Sometimes, it's simply a film that transcends perfection by being exactly the film it needs to be.
I can't imagine Richard Linklater's Boyhood being a different film. I can't imagine Boyhood's dialogue being different or characters being different or scenes being different. I can't imagine a change. I'm not sure if I'd call it perfection and, in fact, I wrestled mightily with whether or not Boyhood truly warranted my rarely awarded 4-star, A+ rating.
I'm not sure I'd call Boyhood perfection, but I wouldn't change a thing.
For those unfamiliar with the journey behind the film, Boyhood has proven to be an extraordinarily experimental journey involving a mere 39 days of shooting over the course of a twelve year period involving the same core cast.
Think about that. The same perfectly precocious youngsters playing children in the film are, in fact, the same performers playing those characters twelve years later.
There's so much that could have gone wrong. There's so much that probably should have gone wrong.
The closest comparison I can come up with for the film is the highly acclaimed Up series, but the truth is that's a poor comparison as this is no documentary and this is almost singularly focused on one family unit. While I'm not particularly prone to grandiose statements, Boyhood may very well be the finest film made about the arc of a life ever made.
The film's most remarkable achievement may very well be in the extraordinary casting of Ellar Coltrane, who was a six-year-old from Texas when he was originally cast as Mason, the central figure in this tale whose life journey unfolds in much the same way that many children's lives unfold through life changes, parenting changes, divorce, puberty, girls, and so much more. While it's not particularly risky to cast an adorable young child to play an adorable young child, it was impossible to know what would have happened in the future.
Coltrane could have lost interest in the project.
Coltrane could have become, quite simply, a bad actor.
Coltrane could have become pretentious or spoiled or affected or, even worse, a Disney kid.
There were so many ways this grand experiment could have been ruined, but Linklater persevered and Coltrane, whose parents really did also divorce at one point during filming, also persevered and surrendered himself to this project and this film and this bigger than life statement.
Did it help, perhaps, that Coltrane was surrounded by veterans? Linklater cast his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, as Mason's elder sister Samantha, and the film's two central parenting figures are portrayed by established vets Ethan Hawke and the always remarkable Patricia Arquette.
I suppose that helped, but there's still so much that could have gone wrong here.
Boyhood is a masterpiece precisely because Linklater doesn't make it out to be a masterpiece. It's a film that celebrates the journey, the small moments, and the little things that happen in our daily lives. Linklater avoids, at least for the most part, unnecessary dramas and histrionic stunts in favor of giving us glimpses into how one boy's life is shaped by the events he experiences, the people he encounters, and the joys and sorrows he experiences over the years.
I laughed during Boyhood. I cried during Boyhood. I reflected upon my own life and I reflected upon my own experiences, thoughts, encounters, and relationships. As I watched Mason escape into his pop culture world yet once again when his loving but consistently misguided mother would hook up with yet another weak male role model, I reflected back to my own days of escaping into my bedroom and watching my favorite television shows or reading my favorite books or somehow finding ways to escape a world I didn't always understand.
Boyhood beautifully captures the fragility of a boy's vulnerability and how that vulnerability can be shaped and molded. Yet, it also captures the resilience of a child and the ability of a child to take even the most traumatic life experiences and to somehow forge one's own identity. Coltrane's Mason grows into a more refined version of his father, played without an ounce of pretense or unnecessary drama by Ethan Hawke in a performance that most certainly rates among his finest. It is a credit to Linklater that Boyhood doesn't feel manipulated.
Instead, it feels like Mason grows into the young man he's meant to be. He's been shaped by his mother, father, sister, and the various men that his mother will eventually hook up with over the years who repeat patterns that are uncomfortably familiar.
It feels like Mason Sr., as played by Hawke, also grows into himself as a parent. He isn't a perfect parent and Linklater doesn't forcefeed some ridiculously cathartic scene so that all of this makes some sort of Hollywood style sense. Instead, Hawke merely portrays him as a man who starts to figure out over the years exactly what the word "father" really means.
To be sure, Linklater's willingness to rest comfortably within the mundane moments of life may prove trying for those who've become accustomed to Hollywood's insistence on dramatic moments or tears or cathartic laughter or some inevitable conflict that makes everything make sense. But, it's clear that Linklater's not interested conflicts as much as he's interested in the little moments that turn a young boy into a young man.
There are so many other things that could be said about Boyhood, but I find myself hesitant.
I don't want to oversell the film. I don't want to undersell the film. I'm hesitant to call Boyhood a masterpiece, because it doesn't truly play out like most of the masterpieces that you've witnessed over the course of your life. There are times that the film seemingly plods along, but just about the time you find yourself thinking "I wish something would happen" you realize that you've immersed yourself in the tiniest of moments.
The film's lensing, from Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, is intimate and sublime while Linklater once again has surrounded his cast with a stellar soundtrack and a tremendous production design by Rodney Becker and Gay Studebaker.
Boyhood, in addition to the grand nature of its experimental production, was shot on a remarkably modest budget of $1.2 million and yet it's a film that uses every dollar to perfection with a look and feel that is rich and lived in and intimate and warm.
It is most certainly a rarity when ambition is met by remarkable achievement, but such is the case with Richard Linklater's Boyhood, a film that will remind you everything that there is to love about the craft of filmmaking and acting and writing and everything else that goes into a film. It is a film that has changed me, of this I am sure, and it is a film I have no doubt I will treasure for years to come.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic