You've watched actors grow up on screen before, whether it be Mickey Rooney, Elizabeth Taylor, or Jerry Mathers (as the Beaver). But Richard Linklater's Boyhood makes cinematic poetry of the experience by presenting us with a single narrative consumable in one sitting, shot (on 35mm film) in 39 days over twelve years with the same cast.
True to his own form, Linklater fashions this inherently remarkable material with considerable restraint, and trusty intuition hitting the jackpot in the casting of Ellar Coltrane as the film's central character, Mason. When we first meet Mason, at age six, it is "Aspiration Day" at the grade school, and Mason's choice is to aspire the clouds, lying in the green grass, cherubic face up, on a blue-sky day. In the first of many pointed cultural-timeline markers, Linklater rather fearlessly uses an ultra-familiar pop song to underscore this near-universal experience of American childhood: Coldplay's "Yellow" ("Look at the stars, see how they shine for you..."). Indeed, the world—and the film—are Mason's oysters: the possibilities are endless, and the perspective belongs to him.
Along comes Mason's mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette in a career-best role), and soon enough we meet his vivacious (read bratty) sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) and their father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), divorced but re-involved with his kids after a stint working in Alaska. Others come and go—most notably two more unfortunate husbands for Olivia—but this is the story of a (fractured) family of four over the period of a childhood, culminating in a young adult's release into the wild, a bookend of the opening scene's endless possibility as a new phase of life stretches to the horizon.
An authentic performer, Coltrane crucially provides a natural, resonant presence giving anchor to an intentionally slippery narrative. Boyhood is a film of moments on the path of child development: some of them obvious (a birthday, a graduation day) but most of them ordinary, though meaningful to Mason (talks with Olivia, outings with Mason Sr.). Some are likely to resonate with just about any male (leering at models in a catalog, feigning sickness in an attempt to stay home from school); others are more specific to Mason's emerging character, including semi-autobiographical elements mined from Coltrane's own development (and, of course, a childhood marked by divorce, like Linklater's, will speak to roughly half the American audience).
When Mason Sr. expertly skips a stone across a lake, it's an unspoken metaphor for the passage of time and the film itself. At the film's quiet emotional climax, a reedy, self-possessed, eighteen-year-old, college-bound Mason asks a fretful Olivia, "Aren't you jumping ahead by, like, forty years?" The meta moment, with a heartbreaking response I won't spoil, describes life's great anxiety: the ways in which it seems to skip ahead on us. Linklater repeatedly presences this feeling by seamlessly editing through the annual gaps in filming. No title cards announce the passage of a year: the characters simply pass into a new frame one year older, and in the children's cases, usually startlingly so.
Boyhood does leave something to be desired, but so does life. I wish that the acting were less stilted in spots, and suspect that a bit more shape would have made for a yet richer, yet more thought-provoking experience. But as that greatest of screen rarities—a potentially mainstream experimental film—the writer-director earns a bit of slack in gratitude for the strange and wonderful gift Boyhood is, Shakespeare's proverbial "mirror up to nature" that is art's highest function.
Though Boyhood previously received a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital HD special edition release from Paramount, the new Blu-ray special edition from The Criterion Collection bests it in every respect. The film's die-hard fans should still hold on to the Paramount disc, as its features have not been retained by Criterion, but the two-disc Criterion Blu-ray is otherwise about as close as it gets to a definitive one. The film transfer gets a disc essentially to itself, with maximum disc space devoted to what's billed as a "new 2K digital transfer, supervised by director Richard Linklater." The 35mm image gets a lovely rendering here, with vibrant, true color and a palpable depth. Detail and textures are excellent, contributing to an overall clean and tight impression that nevertheless retains a filmic feel in its subtle grain structure. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix certainly does the trick, with an emphasis on front-and-center dialogue and warm, full source music, but a bit of ambience to enhance the film's realism.
Bonus features kick off on that first disc with an audio commentary featuring Linklater and nine members of the film’s cast and crew: Linklater, producer Cathleen Sutherland, editor Sandra Adair, co-producer and first assistant director Vince Plamo Jr., production designer Rodney Becker, costume designer Kari Perkins, casting director Beth Sepko-Lindsey, and actors Marco Perella, Libby Villari and Andrew Villarreal. This is about as thorough as audio commentaries get, filling the film's nearly three-hour run time with personable recollections and relevant details about the film's inception, process, and reception.
Criterion has also produced five new video extras, all housed on the second Blu-ray disc. "Twelve Years" (49:28, HD) is a terrific making-of doc with set footage spanning the shoot and cast and crew interviews.
"Memories of the Present" (57:35, HD) sits Linklater, Patricia Arquette, and Ellar Coltrane with producer John Pierson as moderator. It's a fascinating discussion shot one year after the Oscars (where Arquette took home a Best Actress trophy) and the hoopla around the film's release. The team discusses their "art project," intentions, methodology, and experiences, including trying to keep their heads about them and, more importantly, prepare the kids in the film to do the same.
"Always Now" (30:10, HD) is an interview of Ethan Hawke and Coltrane (sitting together) that's likewise very interesting, putting its emphasis on Hawke's point-of-view as a regular collaborator with Linklater.
Coltrane narrates "Time of Your Life" (12:29, HD), a video essay by critic Michael Koresky about the nature of time in Linklater's films, including Boyhood.
"Through the Years" (23:59, HD) is a sort of abridged adaptation of the book Boyhood: Twelve Years on Film, which featured photographs by Matt Lankes. Lankes kicks off the featurette, which presents the photos taken over the film's production, along with essays—by cast and crew—that can be found in the book. Reading their own words are Linklater, Sutherland, Hawke, Arquette, and Coltrane.
The set also comes with a booklet of credits, tech specs, photography, and an essay on the film by novelist Jonathan Lethem. This is exactly the kind of release that shows the continued relevance of physical media: Criterion has done it again.
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