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'Boyhood' triumphs when it stops being a theory

There is a scene relatively early on when I stopped thinking of Richard Linklater’s unanimously praised “Boyhood” as a bold cinematic idea and started thinking of it as a human drama capable of imparting the emotional wallop of reality.

Nothing all that important happens. The actor whose short single line packs such a punch doesn’t deliver the line until the scene is almost finished. Nothing at all about the line is unusually significant. It’s just that the voice that comes out of actor Ellar Coltrane’s larynx is no longer a high, sweet boy’s voice; it’s a voice a half-octave lower.

Parents, family members and friends know the moment I’m talking about in the life of boys. I remember calling a superior at home. A deep unfamiliar voice said “Hello?” I asked for his mother by her first name.

When she got to the phone I asked if that could possibly have been her teen son who answered – the one whose high voice I’d been hearing on the phone intermittently for years. She admitted she still wasn’t used to the voice now coming out of her son’s voicebox.

It’s one of life’s exclamation-point moments no matter how trivial may be the substance of what’s said or done: Children grow up. And those in their families or who merely know them are invariably brought up short by the physical changes.

Believe me, nothing in Linklater’s “Boyhood” was more dramatic to me than the voice of Coltrane, now at least half an octave lower than it was in the earlier scenes. Pubescence had hit him – and our eardrums out in the audience – like a ton of bricks. At that moment, “Boyhood” stopped being an extremely canny illustration of an aesthetic theory and became a movie whose conveyance of the reality of growing up became visceral and deeply affecting.

In the lives of children, after all, what is more moving to intimate witnesses than time itself, with its physical growth and emotional and intellectual development? It’s the daughter who was an infant in a bassinet one day and the next, it seems, is a mother.

And that’s the affecting thing writer/director Linklater and his actors have done here. They made “Boyhood” at yearly intervals beginning when Coltrane was a 6-year-old first-grader and ended at 18 when Mason – the boy Coltrane plays – is entering college.

Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, plays Mason’s older sister. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play his mother and father. We are subject to whatever time would do to them. Weight might be gained. Hair might be lost. Wrinkles might appear. Whatever happened over the course of 12 years happened on film.

In the case of the boy we first see as a remarkably sweet-faced 6-year-old, that means the endurance of the most awkward years that time imposes on the human body – adolescence when boys grow, their voices change, hair sprouts crazily and hormones impose hitherto unimagined desires.

We, in the audience of “Boyhood,” are watching Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater, enter into life’s most basic crucible and emerge from the other side intact and apparently unharmed 12 years later.

The story we’re being told – without any unnecessary italics at all – is about a dysfunctional family. Dad (Hawke) is loving and likable, but immature when the kids are little. He drives a GTO, plays the electric piano and clings to an adolescent world view.

He has intuitive wisdom, too. And his love for his kids isn’t an issue. It’s only his ability to be as stable and present in their lives as a parent needs to be, especially in a broken family.

So things get troublesome when mother and father split up. She has lousy taste in men. She hooks up with and marries two different men, both oppressive drunks, if in different ways.

Actor Coltrane changes from a beautiful child to one of nature’s more radical works in progress. As he does, Mason – the boy he’s playing – discovers early on a kind of vocation/avocation in photography. And he discovers girls, especially one whom, in a common boyhood rite, he loses to an older boy. (In this one, a college boy.)

As wonderful as Linklater’s game on time passing is in “Boyhood,” it’s far from unprecedented. What has made him one of the great directors his age (54) was his trilogy of “Before” films with Hawke and Julie Delpy – “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight.” They were made at nine-year intervals and explored the state of a long relationship through long expanses of some of the smartest talk movies have given us in the past 20 years.

Most radically of all, Michael Apted – whose name can now be seen festooning credits on garden variety episodic television – gave us a series of documentaries about a group of English children followed at seven-year intervals. We watched what happens when human beings grow and leave childhood behind.

In his visually beautiful ending in “Boyhood,” Linklater shows us Mason in college and hiking with a female friend. The last image we see is a stunner.

But the final line in the film – as are rather too many during the course of it – is again at the mercy of an idea where it should have trusted the images of a growing (and grown) boy to be the equal of any idea.

What’s great about the word-filled “Before” films is the acknowledgement that the ideas of intelligent people change over time while love can remain. The “Before” trilogy is one of the great modern film achievements.

“Boyhood” is a small and moving film that got very, very lucky.



3 stars

Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette

Director: Richard Linklater

Running time: 165 minutes

Rating: R for language, teenage drug and alcohol use.

The Lowdown: Twelve years, from age 6 to 18, in the life of a boy in a struggling family, filmed over regular intervals in the real lives of the young actors playing the family’s children.

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