boyhood-stillIt is a gimmick, and one could argue that it is not even original.

Since 1964, 14 British schoolchildren have been followed by documentary filmmakers who have presented their findings every seven years in the so-called Up Series with the titles matching the age of the participants (7 Up, 14 Up, etc.). Still, it may be unprecedented for a feature filmmaker to take the same approach, but that is what Richard Linklater did. Beginning in 2002, and continuing over the next 12 years, Linklater brought together the same core group of actors for a few days of filming with the intent to put together a movie on growing up, which, in fact, was the working title for most of the 12 years.

Earlier this year, the finished product, now titled Boyhood, received its international premiere at the 64th Berlinale Film Festival, and one thing was immediately clear.

This was no mere gimmick. Linklater had crafted a masterful work that is simple, elegant, and universal.

When we first meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane), he is a first grader. When we reluctantly says good-bye at the end of almost three hours, he is a college freshman. He comes of age in an America of Star Wars, our wars, Britney Spears, Dubya, Roger Clemens, smart phones, laptops, and Barack Hussein Obama, but his experience is not limited to a particular time or place. It’s being the new kid at school. It’s going to the ballgame with your dad. It’s having a big sister who torments you until the day you realize she’s your best friend. It’s finding out that your parents aren’t perfect and that many adults are badly flawed. It’s learning that life is unfair, unexpected, and, every so often, unbeatable.

Coltrane in the lead role maintains over the course of a dozen years, an even, understated temperament and approach that underscores the newness of each experience. There’s is not a single scene in which he falls out of character or even gives a hint of overplaying his role. Lorelei Linklater as his sister is fresh and funny, and it is equally enjoyable to see her at every step on her journey to becoming a young woman.

The foundation of the film, however, are Mason’s divorced parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Arquette, in particular, is the embodiment of a supporting actress here, not as defined as being less than a lead actress, but in underpinning the performance of the child actors. We also see through Arquette and Hawke that the process of growing is not completed when one reaches a certain age. Mason Sr. (Hawke) is an adult at the film’s beginning, but it is not until the end when he can be considered a man. Olivia (Arquette) is still waiting to see what she wants to be when she grows up at the outset. Along the way, she demonstrates that making mistakes of judgement is not strictly the domain of the young.

Linklater was rightfully awarded the Silver Bear at Berlinale for Best Director. “Puzzling” is the most polite way to describe the jury’s selection of the pedestrian Chinese feature Black Coal, Thin Ice as the best film over Boyhood. Linklater’s work is a treasure, a small gem of a movie that expands our expectations of what cinema can bring to us.

Some have said the appeal of the movie is limited to the art house crowd. That is nonsense. The film is as universal as the bittersweet joy of seeing youth bloom and childhood left behind.

Four and a half stars.

 

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