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‘Boyhood’ Hits VOD: Richard Linklater’s Philosophy of Understanding

'Boyhood' Hits VOD: Richard Linklater's Philosophy of Understanding

Hey, have any of you guys heard of a little movie called “Boyhood?” It’s pretty good, and it’s hitting VOD today. All joking aside, Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making project has gone through an incredible journey over the past year, from long-awaited passion project and Sundance favorite to the best-reviewed movie of the year to winner of several major critics’ prizes to apparent Best Picture frontrunner. Since then, it’s picked up its fair share of skeptics, but it’s otherwise appearing on close to every critic’s top ten list, if not at the very top. 

It’s hard not to look at “Boyhood” without thinking of its remarkable structural conceit. Filmmakers like Francois Truffaut and Michael Apted have watched children grow up in both fictional and documentary contexts, but they’ve done it over the course of several movies, while Linklater (who used a similar approach with the “Before” trilogy) has condensed 12 years of material into one concentrated dose. It’s another one of Linklater’s experiments with time as a formal tool, but more notably, “Boyhood” is one of the ultimate cases of Linklater’s supreme gift with empathy. 

Linklater has remarkable intellectual curiosity and generosity of spirit as a filmmaker, something he’s displayed at least since his 1991 breakthrough “Slacker.” Starting with “Dazed and Confused,” Linklater made the need to make nearly all of his characters’ perspectives understandable one of the key tenets of his work. “Dazed” is packed with characters who are alternatively charming, sympathetic and gallingly self-righteous, from Adam Goldberg’s neurotic intellectual to Jason London’s laid-back football player, but Linklater extends a certain degree of understanding to nearly all of them. Ultimately, they’re all confused kids trying to find some degree of independence, something Linklater can’t help but identify with. 

The “Before” trilogy, meanwhile, shows a relationship developing over time to the point where the two move past infatuation and have to really take stock of whether or not their relationship will work. It culminates in “Before Midnight’s” marathon argument between Julie Delpy’s Celine and Ethan Hawke’s Jesse as years of petty resentments boil over, her arguing that he’s passive-aggressive and she had to give up a real career to have children, him arguing that she’s picking away at him and mentioning that he fucked up his life with his son for her. Neither can fully take in each others’ points immediately, but Linklater lets them both be heard and appreciates their frustration, ultimately arguing that it’s essential that both partners be honest and open with each other and that they try to understand each other.

“Boyhood” is one of the ultimate examples of Linklater’s philosophy of understanding because it blends both of these perspectives, youthful and adult. While the film centers on Ellar Coltrane’s Mason, Jr., it is defined by his and his sister’s relationships with their parents and how their love for each other is only matched by their frustration with each other. In one scene, Mason’s sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) forgets to pick up her brother, much to her mother’s (Patricia Arquette) irritation. Samantha reacts to her mothers’ anger with teenage self-centeredness, focusing entirely on how the decision impacts her. It’s easy to be just as annoyed with her as Arquette is, but what’s key about the scene is how utterly non-judgmental it is. A similar incident happens later when Mason comes home from a football game late and is scolded by his stepfather (Brad Hawkins), who, drunk heteronormative asshole he may be, isn’t wrong that Mason is inconsiderate of his parents’ rules and worries.

Linklater stresses that teenagers act like inconsiderate narcissists because they lack the perspective of their parents and don’t fully comprehend how hard their lives are. Like the teenagers of “Dazed and Confused,” they’re just trying to gain some sense of their own independence. At the same time, while he recognizes how much it would make a difference if Mason would just wash a goddamn dish for his overworked mother once and a while, he sees how Arquette can be too short with her children, or how Hawke can be overbearing whenever he’s with them, whether he’s interrogating them about their lives or trying to push his musical taste onto Mason. They’ve got a lot on their plate, and it sometimes clouds their judgment and makes them expect more perspective from their kids than either Mason or Samantha can manage. The film isn’t great just because of its conceit. It’s great because it tries to make its characters’ points of view understandable from childhood to young adulthood, adulthood to middle age. Just because the people in our lives don’t always listen doesn’t mean no one else will.

More thoughts from the Criticwire Network:

Jason Bailey, Flavorwire

“Boyhood” reveals itself as something deeper, more noteworthy and ambitious than even its remarkable production would suggest, for Linklater has given us nothing less than a cinematic approximation of human memory. Read more.

A.A. Dowd, The A.V. Club

What Linklater is after here is a mundanely meaningful vision of growing up, a childhood told in fragments and minutiae. The seminal moments in our lives, the ones that shape who we’ll become, aren’t always the expected ones. Notably, the film skips past Mason’s first kiss, his first beer, and the loss of his virginity. It’s less interested in typical milestones of youth than in the deceptively forgettable stuff that happens before and after them. Read more.

Eric Kohn, Indiewire

The key to “Boyhood” lies with the smallness of its story, which revolves around the plight of Texan native Mason (Ellar Coltrane) along with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and their divorced parents, Mason Sr. and Olivia (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). As we watch this quartet consistently age during the movie’s justifiable 164 minute length, the subtle qualities of change become steadily crystallized. Read more.

Joshua Rothkopf, Time Out New York

Cool as it sounds, this long-game gimmick doesn’t automatically guarantee profundity. Linklater, the least pretentious and most relaxed of American filmmakers, would probably say so himself. But amazingly, depth is exactly what he achieves, by letting the years play out in an uninterrupted, three-hour flow, and lingering on moments that most films would cut for pace. Read more.

Dan Schindel, Movie Mezzanine

This is a movie where not much happens that probably hasn’t happened to you, but which, in the aggregation of these moments, becomes something utterly profound. Read more.

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