There has never been another movie like Boyhood, from director Richard Linklater. An event film of the utmost modesty, it was shot over the course of twelve years in the director’s native Texas and charts the physical and emotional changes experienced by a child named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette, who won an Oscar for her performance, and Ethan Hawke), and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater). Alighting not on milestones but on the small, in-between moments that make up our lives, Linklater fashions a flawlessly acted, often funny portrait that flows effortlessly from one year to the next. Allowing us to watch people age on film with documentary realism while gripping us in a fictional narrative of exquisite everydayness, Boyhood has a power that only the art of cinema could harness.
"So, what's the point?"
Growth is a lifelong process. While we attempt to categorize different stages in our development, life is really just one long stretch of learning and discovery. A child fighting with his big sister, a teenager sneaking a drink, a father struggling to keep a steady job, and a mother working hard to pay the bills are all on the same decades-spanning journey -- the same collage of mistakes and revelations and heartaches and triumphs. Over a twelve year period, Richard Linklater's 'Boyhood' chronicles such a montage of moments, and through its fascinating examination of shifting years, the movie connects each passing instance into a whole that is far greater than the mere sum of its parts. As we ostensibly watch a boy become a man before our eyes, the director essentially deconstructs those very labels, blurring the passage of time into a beautifully understated celebration of life's small joys and unanswerable questions.
Featuring an unconventional twelve year production, the movie focuses on Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a six-year old boy, as he grows into an eighteen-year old adult. Through a series of vignettes from each year of passing time, the narrative follows Mason from elementary school until his first day at college, offering various peeks into his evolving life along the way. From bad haircuts to abusive stepfathers and first loves, the story illuminates his coming-of-age in moments both small and significant.
When I first heard about the film's undeniably ambitious scope, I was cautiously optimistic. While shooting the same movie with the same aging cast over a twelve year period is a potentially fascinating concept, I was a bit worried that this conceit would prove to be a simple gimmick. After all, watching child actors age on screen is hardly groundbreaking. We see it happen all the time on various TV sitcoms and dramas, or even in film series like Francois Truffaut's 'Antoine Doinel' movies and the 'Harry Potter' franchise. But thankfully, what Linklater has done here is quite different from anything that has come before, creating a cinematic examination of passing time like no other.
Parents often lament about how fast kids grow up, frequently questioning where all the years have gone. Though I've yet to experience this firsthand, after seeing 'Boyhood,' I now feel like I've gotten a taste of this phenomenon. As we watch Mason gradually grow throughout the years, Linklater carefully compresses twelve years into a mere 164 minutes, and while scripts spanning decades are hardly new, the fact that the cast and the production actually endure this passage of time offers a startling experience. When Mason goes from being a wide-eyed seven-year old to a moody adolescent, the audience is now able to feel that loss of time in a truly palpable way because it's real. The actor and the character have actually gotten older; those years are gone and there is no going back. I often couldn't help but look at the screen and wonder like a proud but bewildered father, "Where did my little boy go?"
Transitions throughout the years prove to be both seamless and abrupt, with Linklater rarely offering any clear segue from vignette to vignette. Instead, despite the inherently fragmented narrative and production, all of the separate pieces feel like a cohesive whole, and we are left to decipher the shifts in time through Mason's growing face and changing voice. Likewise, audiences can also follow the moving years through little background details, like the electronics the characters use, music they listen to, news they watch, and politics they discuss. Together, each year blends into the next, resulting in distinct yet organic segments that chronicle Mason and his family.
Some of these episodes focus on rather predictable beats, following Mason as he argues with his big sister or watches his parents fight from a distance, but as the runtime goes on, Linklater almost seems to go out of his way to avoid the typical "big" moments that most coming-of-age stories gravitate toward. In contrast, the narrative hones in on the smaller instances between these so-called milestones, and many scenes tend to favor various heart-to-hearts and simple conversations between Mason and his family and friends. Of course, there are still instances of traditional conflict, including a stretch of time that features an alcoholic stepfather. With that said, for the first half of the film, Mason is more of an observer of the film's drama rather than a true participant. But as the movie develops, he transitions from a passive protagonist into an active one, allowing the narrative's dynamics to mirror the character's own personal growth.
While with rare exception the film is primarily told from Mason's perspective -- his father, mother, and sister also play an integral part in the story. In fact, as the filmmakers point out in the included special features, though the movie is called 'Boyhood,' it could have just as easily been titled 'Parenthood' or 'Adulthood,' as Linklater's examination of growth here is hardly age exclusive. In the role of Mason's parents, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are both exceptional, illuminating the lingering pangs of uncertainty, doubt, and endless learning that continue on with us well out of childhood and adolescence. Their parallel stories work in tandem with their son's, creating an all-encompassing peek into the same twelve year period. As Mason makes mistakes and learns from them, so too, do his mother and father, revealing life's cyclical and never-ending growing pains.
We watch Mason go through his awkward years, only to learn that in reality, from birth until death -- they're all awkward years. Whether we're in our teens or fifties, we remain stumbling, confused, strange little creatures, struggling to learn how to walk and forever aching to discover who we are. As Mason and his family reveal, childhood and adulthood are really just insignificant labels, marking vague stepping stones across one single moment -- an infinite now filled with hardship and possibilities. So much more than just a mere gimmick, Linklater's multi-year production allows us to feel the very reality of growth, to examine its evolution before our eyes, engendering all the paradoxical loss and progress that comes with each shifting year. 'Boyhood' is a striking achievement, a thought-provoking experiment in cinematic production, and an unassumingly beautiful film. By actually going through the twelve year process in front of and behind the camera, Linklater constructs a cinematic coming-of-age story where both form and content experience the full, bittersweet weight of time.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Criterion brings 'Boyhood' to Blu-ray in a 2-Disc set housed in the company's standard clear keepcase with spine number 839. The film and commentary are presented on a BD-50 disc while the remainder of the supplements are included on a separate BD-25 disc. The packaging indicates the release is region A coded. A booklet with an essay by novelist Jonathan Lethem is also included.
The movie is provided with a 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer in the 1.85:1 aspect ratio. For the most part, the video looks identical to the previously released Paramount Blu-ray -- and thankfully, that's not a bad thing at all. With that said, some of the specks found on the previous transfer have been cleaned up here, and the original aspect ratio is now maintained (the last disc was cropped to 1.78:1), offering a bit more picture on the sides of the frame. Here's what I had to say about the video in my previous review:
The 35mm source print is in great shape with a natural layer of light grain visible throughout, and only some very negligible specks here and there. Linklater employs a very naturalistic style, resulting in an understated but beautiful picture. Though not razor sharp, clarity is pleasing and the video offers a good sense of dimension. Colors are realistic yet still vivid, and the palette favors light greens, blues, and yellows. Contrast is also well balanced with even whites and blacks. With that said, grain in dark scenes tends to look a tad heavy and slightly clumpy. Thankfully, I detected no major signs of compression or digital artifacts.
With its naturalistic aesthetic and strong technical presentation, 'Boyhood' comes to Blu-ray with a great video transfer free from any major issues.
The film is presented with an English DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. For all intents and purposes, this appears to be the same audio mix from the last disc. With that in mind, here's what I had to say about the track in my previous review:
Like the video, the audio is fairly modest in design, and while this subtle quality works very well, the mix does lack notable surround sound presence.
Dialogue is clean, full, and well prioritized throughout. The soundstage is relatively front-loaded, but delicate hints of appropriate ambiance are spread naturally to the rears. Directionality and imaging are equally subtle, resulting in a small yet seamless soundscape that expands a bit during more dramatic moments (a tense scene in a car, for instance). Music is also a large part of the experience and the soundtrack of pop and rock songs complements the film's shifting time periods perfectly. Thankfully, the songs all come through with strong fidelity and stereo separation. Dynamic range is crisp and wide with no distortion, though bass activity is fairly negligible (as one should expect from a film of this type).
Quietly immersive, 'Boyhood' features a fitting but slightly underwhelming audio mix. Though the restrained design works well with the content, just a little more activity and texture could have helped to enhance the experience.
Criterion has put together an extensive assortment of new supplements, including a commentary and a making of documentary. With that said, this disc does not include the two bonus features found on the previous Paramount release, but the extras here cover similar ground in more detail. All of the supplements are presented in 1080p with Dolby Digital sound.
Richard Linklater's 'Boyhood' is an unassumingly beautiful film. So much more than just a mere gimmick, the movie's ambitious twelve-year production allows the audience to feel the narrative's passage of time in a deeply emotional and resonant manner, creating one of cinema's most unique and honest coming-of-age stories. The video transfer is strong and the audio mix is appropriately modest and effective. Improving upon the previous release, this new 2-Disc set from Criterion offers a comprehensive collection of interesting supplements, providing some great insights into the film's fascinating production. For viewers who don't own the movie on Blu-ray yet, or for big fans interested in the new special features, this release is very highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.