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Sundance 2014, Day Four: This Boy's Life

Posted by Ty Burr  January 20, 2014 04:05 AM

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Boyhood.jpgOver the course of his filmmaking career, Richard Linklater has played, at times obsessively, with what might be called durational realism, starting with the epic monologues of "Slacker," capturing in amber the last week of high school ("Dazed and Confused"), and blossoming with the 18-year sectional life drama that is the "Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight/xxxx" series. No other director I can think of is so intrigued by the notion of exploring life as it's lived by expanding the cinema's palette of time.

His new film, "Boyhood," premiered to a packed house at the Eccles Theater tonight, and on one level it's Linklater's most radical experiment yet -- a project that, in essence, connects the dots of a trilogy like the "Before" films. Starting in 2001 and shot intermittently over 12 years, "Boyhood" follows a young boy named Mason Evans, Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane, as he ages from 6 to 18 -- from childhood to the edge of adulthood.

We watch him transform from a dreamy child, slightly out of step with the universe, to a kid holding himself back as he watches his mother (Patricia Arquette) cope with single parenthood and a lousy second marriage while his father (Ethan Hawke) dithers about growing up, to a mumblemouthed adolescent pushing the boundaries of experience, to a young man striding to his own rhythms, with his own passionate thoughts about where he's going. In a sense, "Boyhood" is a prequel to Linklater's earlier work, in that you could easily imagine Mason getting out of college after the end credits and heading overseas for a Eurail Pass. That's right, this is "Before 'Before Sunrise'".

But that glib connection only diminishes the quiet momentousness of what Linklater achieves here. It's not only Mason we see grow from a cherubic innocent to a lanky seeker. His older sister (played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei) also passes through the Seven Stages of Modern American Childhood, and Arquette as their mother morphs as well, through hairstyles and career shifts, thickening into middle age along with her ex-husband. For the parents, ideals are exchanged for practicalities; for their children, faith in the world of their parents subtly transmutes through bafflement and teenage numbness into a reliance on the soundness of their perceptions and thenceforth into their own ideals. (Which will eventually become practicalities, and so forth and so on, the wheel turning cruelly and beautifully forever. But that's another, as-yet-unmade Linklater movie, and I don't even know if there's a budget for it.)

Some caveats: "Boyhood" is two-and-three-quarters hours long, and it has its occasional longueurs , although not nearly as many as you'd think: I went into a late evening screening fairly fried and expecting to have the math-class nods, and was held rapt throughout. The acting from the younger members of the cast can seem forced, although Coltrane himself is a genuine find (or maybe that's just what happens when you're in a movie from the age of 6 onward -- you mature into acting by default).

There are moments of plain banality rather than illuminative banality. And -- this is crucial -- I'm not sure this movie would work as well on a home screen, where its small dramatic details might pass by unnoticed. I think you need to see this movie about the human community surrounded by a human community.

The film's especially unerring, I think in its last third, when Mason is a thoughtful but spacey alt-teen, his artistic bent finding expression in photography while all the adults in his life, from Mom to teachers to his McBoss hector him to straighten up, fly right, get some discipline, finish his assignments, clean his room, mail in his college applications. "Boyhood" is a reminder of what it is to be a young person expanding your soul unseen by all the adult control freaks who only want the best for you, even as they have no idea who you actually are. It's about the prison of expectations and the outrageous thrill of jailbreak. It's about the art of putting yourself together without having a clue of how to do so. It's time-lapse drama -- one of those stop-motion flowers exploding into bloom but with a person instead of petals.

And it's unique and true, in both the dull bits of experience and the parts we only wish were dull. If there weren't already a movie called "Life Itself" at this festival, that would be the only title for it.

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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

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