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In A Remarkable Feat, 'Boyhood' Makes Time Visible


This is FRESH AIR. Our film critic David Edelstein has a review of the new film "Boyhood." It was written and directed by Richard Linklater, who also made the movies, "Slacker," "Dazed And Confused," "School Of Rock," "The Before Sunrise" Trilogy and "Bernie." "Boyhood" covers a dozen years and was shot over a 12 year period. It stars Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and newcomer Ellar Coltrane as the boy we watch grow up.

DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: Boyhood isn't a documentary but it has a documentary hook. Richard Linklater filmed actor Ellar Coltrane in intervals over 12 years. Beginning when Coltrane's character Mason was six, ending on the far side of puberty. We see the actor go from cute and compact to slightly pudgy, to long waisted and handsome. We're used to time in cinema being relative, easily manipulated. But time actually passing is central to how we experience "Boyhood." We scan Coltrane's face and body for changes. We come to think of each moment as fleeting, irrecoverable and so precious. When we meet Mason his parents have already separated. His father, played by Ethan Hawke, has taken off and his mother, played by Patricia Arquette, is chafing against the feeling that she was first somebody's daughter and now somebody's mother. Early scenes in the family's Texas home are casual, mundane. But telling details build and resonate. Mason reads the latest Harry Potter and peruses a lingerie catalog and sees a dead around the time his mom says their moving to Houston. So her mom can look after them, while she goes back to school. As they packed Mason scrubs his height chart off the wall. I don't know how much Linklater mapped out 12 years ago but I'd like to think he watched his actors and his own life and let many of the details find him. When the father visits Mason and his older sister Samantha, played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei, he's nervous over-effusive, the subtext of their scene in the car is that they'll grow up and he'll never know them.


ETHAN HAWKE: (As Mason Sr.) Talk to me. Samantha how was your week. I don't know dad, it was kind of tough. Billy and Ellen broke up and Ellen kind of made at me 'cause she saw me talking to Billy in the cafeteria. And you remember that sculptor I was working on? Well, it was an unicorn and the horn broke off so now it's a zebra. OK. But I still think I'm going to get A, right. Mason how was your week? Well dad, you know, It was kind of tough, Joey's of a jerk. Actually he stole some cigarettes from his mom and he wanted me to smoke them, but I said no because I knew what a hard time you had quitting smoking dad. How about that? Is that so hard?

LORELEI LINKLATER: (As Samantha) Dad, these questions are kind of hard to answer.

HAWKE: (As Mason Sr.) What is so hard to answer about what sculptor are you making?

LINKLATER: (As Samantha) It’s abstract.

HAWKE: (As Mason Sr.) OK, OK, that's good. See, I didn't know you were even interested in abstract art.

LINKLATER: (As Samantha) I'm not. They make us do it.

ELLAR COLTRANE: (As Mason Jr.) But dad, I mean, why is it all on us though, you know? What about you? How was your week? You know, who do you hang out with? Do you have a girlfriend? What have you been up to?

HAWKE: (As Mason Sr.) I see your point. So we should just let it happen more naturally, all right. That's in you're saying, OK. That's what we'll do. Starting now.

EDELSTEIN: For a time it seems the dad wants to reconcile with his wife. But he's a screw-up with no design for living. And then the mom marries one of her professors and it's on to the scariest chapter of "Boyhood." Since the proff turns out to be a drunk with a mean struck. Along the way you don't catch Ellar Coltrane acting, only reacting. The changes on the outside reflect some of what's going on inside but not all. It's not a one- to-one correspondence between physical and emotional. Parents lecture him, teachers lecture him and Mason grows more inward, out of reach to grown-ups. And then as a senior in high school he meets a girl and begins to talk. He's suddenly in a hurry to figure out what part of himself is uniquely him. Linklater has always used time as a character; it's in the titles of his "Before" trilogy, featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy as characters at different junctures, before sunrise, before sunset, before midnight.

They have to reconnect in each film and fast because the clock is ticking. I love these films but they're talky. Linklater is so literal about time; he never seems to use the full transcendent resources of cinema. He does in "Boyhood." You can't call his touch glancing, each scene is self-contained but he covers a lot of ground. The wars, the election of Obama, the Texas culture of God and guns. The way CDs become iPods, and iPods, iPhones. Mason muses about his Facebook generation, stuck he says, in an in-between state, not experiencing anything. His worldview is evolving before our eyes. I can quibble about small stuff but the cumulative power of "Boyhood" is tremendous. Arquette taps into her character's anger and has never been so vivid. Hawke smoothes out the dad’s hairpin psychological turns by having the character comment on them, as if he's narrating his life for his son. Living with Mason, you feel a shared stake. You might think, oh, right this is how it was when I was young and I felt something new every second and didn't have a name for it. Now I know movies can do something that just last week, I didn't. They can make time visible.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Edelstein is a film critic for New York magazine and for NPR's Fresh Air, and an occasional commentator on film for CBS Sunday Morning. He has also written film criticism for the Village Voice, The New York Post, and Rolling Stone, and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times' Arts & Leisure section.