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Boyhood (2014) Review

Updated on July 23, 2014

It took me over a week to convince myself to write this review. That’s how powerful this film was. I mean, the first thing I said to my wife—after walking away in stunned silence—was, “I…can’t review that.” Of course, here I am, so my words were obviously only a humble reaction to the overwhelming majesty of the human experience conveyed through this 12-year project.

I know, I know, by “human experience” I’m referring to a story about an upwardly-mobile white American family. Still, the fact that it’s about a single group does not negate its majestic humanity. After all, didn’t Kurosawa convey great things about humanity through any given tale about his own people? We have here a director who has been working with this particular subgroup’s experience for pretty much his entire career. But he has also weaved in some of its greatest minds and weirdest stories to provide insights on humanity that transcend categorization. This comparatively simple story is no different in its effect.

Its structure releases the idea of traditional narrative arc overall, nor is it documentary-style; narrative is just present enough to keep you engaged in each episode. And when I say episode, I don’t mean that the film is formally broken up into ages, years, grades, or anything like that. Instead, each moment runs into the next, as in life, when sometimes you can’t tell how fast or slow it’s going or where the change happened. Some moments seem to stretch on forever while others collapse into each other, until you finally let go of your sense of time in order to better draw the appropriate connections, to see this family’s growth as a whole.

"Seeing the family" is also something Linklater does perfectly. He forgoes any stylistic flourishes for a straightforward cinematographic technique, allowing the momentum and massiveness of his undertaking to speak for itself. The actors all do a fantastically natural job in their roles, and the story is at turns hilarious and terrifying. All of this worked especially well on me, since I was pulled in by the relatability of so much of it: I had divorced parents and would travel with my sister between each of them, we put up a dividing pillow in our backseat, I listened to those specific songs all the time in those specific years, I knew those types of stern drunkards my mom would bring around, etc.

And so it happened that, while I was able to look back on the childhood with all the perspective I've gained over the years, the closer the boy got in age to me the more I could feel my past rushing up on me, the more I reflected on things that I had not been prepared yet to reflect upon because they were still too near. Yet, as I was forced to see it all as part of the tapestry, I couldn’t help but smile and well up in the eyes, and I was grateful. If you are a parent, you might also feel the same effect through different characters, which is how I know I'll be able to return to it and still gain something new.

Finally, aside from the personal impact this story has, it must be recognized in terms of the grandiosity of its contribution to cinema. Because Linklater is not overwhelmed, as almost any other filmmaker on Earth might be, by responsibility to convey a certain message, or capture staple moments, to fit everything in, or to be politically correct. He chooses moments that are his own, from his heart, which are unexpected but which consequently represent mile-markers we all face in our own growth. The wisdom and bravery of maintaining this consistency of vision over so many years by letting go of many ideas of consistency is remarkable. And so this film is not only a grandly technical achievement, but a grandly humanitarian one.

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