Note: I sincerely considered whether or not it was feasible to write this review one paragraph per year for 12 years. I decided maybe somebody else should do it.
When we first met Richard Linklater in the ’90s, his specialty was the one-day movie. SLACKER and DAZED AND CONFUSED captured a moment in time by following a group of characters (or a random selection of Austin weirdos) at a particular time. But all these years later he’s fascinated with the opposite: showing the same actors over a long period of time, seeing how things change. He started by following up the characters from the one-day BEFORE SUNRISE seven years later, and then fourteen years later. And with BOYHOOD, as you’ve probly heard, he somehow managed to make a movie with a star who is 7 years old at the beginning and he filmed a little bit each year until the year he starts college. About the only thing that would be more ambitious would be if he made a movie about trying to get me to sit through WAKING LIFE again.
The result is a movie as impressive as it sounds and much more involving. It still has that day-in-the-life feel, it’s just that it’s a whole bunch of days spread out across years. You know what, maybe alot of you other directors are just rushing things. Where’s the fire, man? Take the time to let your actors grow up on camera. Don’t be lazy.
This kid Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, Patricia Arquette plays his single mother, Ethan Hawke plays his dad who he hasn’t seen in a while who comes in driving an awesome car and is cool and everything but what a deadbeat. And we see them all age more than a decade on camera. Man, it’s like BENJAMIN BUTTON in reverse! Instead of aging backwards he ages forwards.
Originally they wanted to call it 12 YEARS, but then 12 YEARS A SLAVE came out so they decided it had to be changed. Also they considered 2 FAST 2 FURIOUS, HAPPY FEET and GHOST RIDER: SPIRIT OF VENGEANCE, but as the years went on each of these titles were snatched up by other productions. It’s kind of a shame they settled on BOYHOOD because it’s really the story of this family, and for the first half or more is just as much about Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei. Toward the end we see less of her, and I heard it was because as she got older she didn’t really want to be in dad’s movie anymore. Which is a reminder what a miracle it is that they managed to pick a kid that would continue doing this for 12 years and doing it well.
They wisely put in timely references, intentionally making it dated. So when he’s a kid he has his Spider-man pajamas, his Dragon Ball Z poster. His sister sings pop songs and talks about Lady Gaga. They dress up to go buy a Harry Potter book. As a teen he talks to a girl about Twilight books. They seem to buy every game system that ever comes out. In 2008 he lists the best movies of the summer as TROPIC THUNDER, DARK KNIGHT and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS. He stumps for Obama, his dad rants about the war, about Bush, about Sarah Palin. There’s a part that they never could’ve predicted would fit so well where dad and son are talking about STAR WARS and how if they ever made new ones they couldn’t take place after RETURN OF THE JEDI because there’s no story there.
Imagine if you were a kid that same age, especially one who grew up in Texas. You’re gonna wanna go back and rewatch this movie throughout the years. There are plenty of people who love DAZED AND CONFUSED because it re-creates the era of their childhood so well. This one doesn’t have to re-create it, it just documents it.
He morphs in and out of different phases. He looks pretty Biebery at one point. In 8th grade he’s turned really cool and confident, then all the sudden he sprouts a teenage half-mustache and his hair gets shagged out. By the end of the movie he’s kinda dressing and carrying himself like Ethan Hawke. Coincidence, I bet, but fitting. And he starts talking about authors and stoner philosophy and shit. It’s like the origin story for a Linklater slacker.
Wouldn’t that be embarrassing if you sincerely thought it started out really good but then you lost interest after a while? That would look pretty bad.
I’m starting to realize that I really like Ethan Hawke. It seems like every time I see him in a movie I start thinking he’s really undervalued. I like the elbow grease he puts into crappy movies, but here he gets to apply it to a really good one. He has that perfect mix of emotional immaturity and sincere innocence. You can see why he’d be infuriating to the ex-wife and ex-mother-in-law, and exciting to the kids. There are scenes where he’s dripping with genuine, dorky enthusiasm, trying to share his political ideas or his love of music with the kids. He plays songs on the car stereo and gives a running commentary about all the things to notice. It’s way too much. It’s great. You can’t fake that.
That’s why he’s likable, but also because he seems aware of his shittiness and attempting to address it. To me one of the most moving scenes is when he brings himself to say something to mom about how well she raised the kids.
And it’s a hell of a role for Arquette. I guess she’s done TV shows and stuff but I realize I haven’t seen her in a while. Here she goes through so much. Some of it admittedly is the same problems you could see in Lifetime TV movies (handled much better here, I believe) but what got me most was the scene where he’s leaving her to go to college. Leaving her alone. She’s proud but also she feels like it’s the end of her whole world. I’m sure that will be the Oscar clip.
I was also impressed by Marco Perella as Mason’s first step dad, Bill. I heard other people say he played it too evil, but I thought he was a very true-to-life asshole. You want to punch this guy so bad as he slowly slides from a cheeseball to a dick to a controlling jerk to an abusive psycho. It’s really scary seeing him flip out near these kids and their mom, but I already hated him when he was being too critical of his son when they go golfing. The first time you see him he makes a joke about his kids and it seems innocent but you quickly see a pattern of having to undercut people all day long. I looked up this guy and he has 64 credits on IMDb but it looks like pretty much only bit parts in Texas-filmed movies, from “FBI George” in COHEN AND TATE to “Good Ol’ Boy in Pickup” in HOME FRIES, “Starbucks Guy” in MISS CONGENIALITY and “Skinny Dude” in SIN CITY. I hope this gets him some bigger roles.
Another bad teacher is Tom McTigue as the high school photography teacher Mr. Turlington. He gives Mason a lecture in the dark room that’s actually really good advice, but he sounds like such an asshole the whole time that it’s hard to imagine Mason not instinctively rejecting it all.
There’s actually a re-occurring theme of teacher relationships here. His mom marries her professor, and later becomes a professor and then marries a student. It does a good job of capturing these unexpected twists in life. Everybody is always changing, going down different paths. Not just the boy but also his sister, his parents. Everybody’s still growing up.
And you don’t always know when it’s gonna go sour. I’m guessing the filmatists didn’t even know from year to year how it was gonna end up, making it feel more real. There’s one marriage that doesn’t go well but at the beginning I got a nice feeling of “things are getting better.” There’s a scene where the dad and the mom are able to bring their families together briefly, have a nice moment, show genuine respect and appreciation for what each family does for the kids.
Watching this kid really age I identified with him but also with his parents. It makes you feel that protectiveness: oh shit, he has grown so much, don’t let him hurt himself. Or turn out to be a douchebag. When he’s drinking and smoking pot a little young, and being in cars with dipshits driving, and playing around with power tools, it has an almost horror movie type of tension. Part of me is going “It’s fine, let him experiment” and part of me is DO YOU WANT TO END UP LIKE YOUR ASSHOLE STEP DAD? No you don’t. Here, drink this Shirley Temple.
This movie is so involving that as soon as you start thinking it’s almost over you wonder “Are they gonna do MANHOOD?” But you know what, let the poor kid go. If he fucks up his life we don’t need to be there to see it. And if he doesn’t he doesn’t need to share everything with the world of indie filmgoers. I mean, this one is pretty much untoppable, but maybe Linklater will find other ways to revisit characters over time. He could do it with the cast of SCHOOL OF ROCK maybe? Nah, that might be kind of sad, unless they all went on to be successful musicians, or at least live happy lives without their music. What about his BAD NEWS BEARS remake? Well, one of those kids already died. You know what, if you film Billy Bob Thornton being an asshole over 12 years I will definitely watch that.
I can’t really recommend this one enough. It goes without saying that there’s nothing quite like it. Who knew the laidback Austinite Linklater could dream so big and then make it a reality? I guess he really didn’t want people calling him a slacker anymore.
*Producer Cathleen Sullivan’s only other credit is playing “Girl in Camaro” in THE LEGEND OF BILLIE JEAN.
*TEXAS CHAIN SAW MASSACRE sound designer Wayne Bell is credited as dialogue and sound effects editor.
* Brad Hawkins, who plays Jim, played “the Gold Ranger” on Power Rangers Zeo
*If it wins the SAG Award for Best Ensemble they can put a Screen Actor’s Guild Award Winner seal on the cover of Power Rangers Zeo
* This was actually filmed in two weeks on Robert Rodriguez’s ranch using puppets to simulate aging
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.