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Posted: 3:43 p.m. Sunday, March 9, 2014

SXSW review: 'Boyhood' 

Courtesy of IFC Films
Still from 'Boyhood.'

By Joe Gross

Well, that certainly lived up to the hype.

Shot in 39 days on 35 mm over 12 years after a year of pre-production and two of post-, in many ways the ultimate Richard Linklater movie and one of the sharpest films about Texas and Texans ever made,“Boyhood” is a monumental achievement of guts, nerve and thoughtful craft, easily one of  the year's most important movies.

The plot is simple, almost non-existent: “Boyhood” follows a white, middle-class boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 5 or 6 until his first few days of college. He has an older sister named Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, who does an excellent job), a mother named Olivia (Patricia Arquette, excellent) raising them both more or less on her own and a father, Mason, Sr., (Ethan Hawke, as good as he’s ever been) who sees his kids every other weekend and in the summer, but who is nonetheless a decent guy who loves his children.

And, well, we see everyone grow up and get older, bit by bit, year by year, life unfolding as life does, 12 or so years in two hours and 41 minutes (Link later helpfully tracks the years through hair cuts -- shorter, then longer; barbered, then buzzed).

Mason is classic Linklater, a bit starry eyed from a young age (the first shot is that of the big, blue Texas sky; no wonder it is his favorite color), literally young enough to be the son of someone in “Slacker.” He spaces out on turning in his homework and repeats first grade, but he settles down. These things happen.

Olivia moves the kids from Houston to a suburb, goes back to school and marries an alcoholic professor, a union that proves unwise and abusive (and a scenario she quite can’t help somewhat repeating later in life). She moves back and forth between stability and movement, attracted to men who are bad for her.

Dad takes a while to grow up, the sort of guy who rooms with a musician named Jimmy (hello, Charlie Sexton), drives around a GTO around and tries to turn Texas blue one Obama sign at a time. Eventually, he settles down and opts for a new family and time marches on.

But this is Mason’s story, as it is truly extraordinary to see him grow and change naturally. This is unprecedented territory for a single narrative feature and Linklater, very calmly and naturally, makes us care quite deeply about this exceptionally normal kid. When you have to stop yourself from clapping after the candles are blown out during Mason’s 15th birthday party, that is a very particular kind of subtle, cinematic rapture. (“Harry Potter” comes up a few times early in the film and, given the way we have seen those once-young actors age over time, it almost feels like a cinematic in-joke.)

It’s hard not to see “Boyhood” as the ultimate Linklater movie, a ne plus ultra for the themes and tones he has been exploring his entire career.

Philosophical musings from young people? Check.

Following characters over time, a la the “Before” series? Check.

Laugh-out-loud humor that never feels overly broad or struggles for a punchline? Check

Elucidating an authentic Texas experience that does not fit into cliches but does touch on traditional realities of life in this state? Check.

And if “Boyhood” is about anything, it is about Texas -- few filmmakers have seen the state and a certain strain of its people for what they are rather than what tradition or stereotype has told them to be.  

It spans the woods of East Texas to Big Bend to the Austin nightlife to the Houston skyline and small Central Texas towns. The landscapes are large.Guns and God make an appearance but not in a cliched way, polo shirts are tucked into chinos, alcohol gets the best of some good ol’ boys. Kids go to shows and ride bikes and smoke weed and go on hikes and head off to college.

Through it, Mason, quiet and contemplative, is never anyone but himself, yet changes over time, just like all of us. When we leave him and his family, we know he is just starting out, and appreciate the moments we have witnessed.

Joe Gross

About Joe Gross

Joe Gross writes about books, music and popular culture for the Austin American-Statesman. He's worked for the American-Statesman since 2002 and has contributed to Rolling Stone, Spin and other publications.

Send Joe Gross an email.


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