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Paramount // R // January 6, 2015
List Price: $39.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Thomas Spurlin | posted January 2, 2015 | E-mail the Author
The Film:

Few films are as appreciated sight unseen as Richard Linklater's Boyhood, his decade-long project in depicting the maturation of a boy from his prepubescent years all the way to his high-school graduation. The idea itself, filtered through the lens of the slice-of-life director responsible for Dazed and Confused and the Before ... series, amasses its own mix of expectation and respect for its ambition before the first frame even appears: the sporadic gathering of the same actors across a twelve-year period to tell an observable and cohesive coming-of-age story, of both the boy himself and the family around him. For the film to exist at all is a marvel; however, Linklater does things with the material befitting a director whose artistic method goes beyond simply gluing together scenes that sprawl across time. Cleverly perceptible transitions between years and unostentatious references to each time period allow Mason's story, at times subtle and other times harrowing, to blossom into a marvelous portrayal of growing up, parenting, and the path that leads someone towards discovering who they are.

Instead of banging out a traditional synopsis for Boyhood, it'd be easier to list off a stream of themes -- intermittent absence of a (not-so-bad) biological parent, alcohol abuse, moving between towns, peer pressure, employment, interacting with the opposite sex -- than force the film to have more of a finite narrative than it really has. Let's just go with something simple: written and directed by Linklater, Mason's (Ellar Coltrane) story captures the nuances, both physical and emotional, of a young boy's growth into the man he's intended to be. His mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), struggles with the lack of a father figure in raising both her children. The attitude of her eldest, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), towards Mason can be described as tolerant at its best, though that also kinda seems to apply to her outlook on life itself as she gets older. His frayed-edged father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), isn't around very much and can't seem to hold down a job between musings of being a musician, but ultimately he's a caring and nurturing individual who's kept at arm's length for a number of reasons.

Then, there's Mason, whose soulful eyes and hushed disposition hold a specific purpose in Boyhood. Aside from the fact that he's obviously a decent kid without behavior or authority issues, his personality doesn't really shine at first, largely because he's absorbing the events transpiring around him instead of directly reacting to them -- until he's pushed over a line. He's an observer, our eyes and ears into his powerless world, something that takes hold in him and never seems to let go over time. It's a truly singular experience to watch Ellar Coltrane change gradually between each segment of his character's life: the emergence of his voice as an actor masquerades underneath Mason's growth into a subtle, tolerant personality, with life and art constantly imitating each other as he matures. Whether Boyhood would have worked if Mason had been more assertive and extroverted is hard to tell; that said, his reserved attitude feels suitable for the youngest sibling in an at-times chaotic and volatile environment.

As Mason responds to the world around him, so too does Richard Linklater's perspective as a filmmaker between the segments of Boyhood, yet it never feels like he's produced individual vignettes despite the jumps in time and shifts in theme. Working off $200k-a-year funding with immense creative freedom, the project slowly reveals itself to be a patchwork tapestry that understands how to make the events in Mason's life come across as both episodic and seamless, with a clear idea of what the final product's going to look like. Linklater's rich taste in music and grasp on modern culture, from video-game systems and Harry Potter to political races, recalls the time period in understated yet noteworthy bursts that mesh together with the evolving family dynamics. Subtle things, even happy accidents, allow the progression of time to be observable, inviting the audience to pay attention those small details -- even Mason's hairstyle -- as natural reminders. Linklater's coming-of-age as a director can also be seen in parallel with Mason's story; the brisk energy in his youth feels more like Before Sunset, which then embraces the calmer and more methodical tempo found in Before Midnight during his later years.

Written by Linklater with generous assistance from his actors to inform the temperament of their individual characters, Boyhood feels less like a structured coming-of-age yarn and more like a stream of consciousness in the mind of an almost-adult reminiscing on his youth before taking big steps into adulthood. Just like life, there isn't much of an act structure to Mason's experiences; distressing and life-altering events occur early in his youth that elevate the dramatic tension, and everything else afterward feels tame in comparison. That's the way unshakable experiences operate sometimes, though, and that's part of what makes Boyhood a poignant piece of work: Linklater depicts the ways in which the family struggles with what darkens their past, and how it impacts who they become in the future. Shadows and glimmers of experiences endured by other people emerge in Mason's story, whether it's as simple as going to school with a bad haircut and dealing with a problem sibling or as potent as fearing one's stepfather, building into an intimate and relatable depiction of growing up with an almost universal awareness of the fabric of memories.

Given the unconventional schedule and the inherent scope of the project, Linklater preserves the illusion of realism in different ways with Boyhood. His most successful method comes in not lingering on one period of time for longer than needed, quickly and organically weaving together the director's existential conversations with delicate, unobtrusive camerawork that follows memorable scenes in Mason's life: the release of a popular book and a conversation about real-world magic; the time his father offered birth-control advice at a bowling alley; the time he lost the girl. What results is a film that's nearly double the length of the director's other musings on life that passes by just as briskly, where all the experiences funnel into an adult vessel at the end who's capable of embracing the resulting thoughts, sorrows, and aspirations. Boyhood gives those watching this rare fly-on-the-wall view of exactly what shapes a person into who they'll ultimately become, and Linklater's ambitious and intimate project ensures that Mason's end result -- flaws and all -- makes sense every step of the way.

The Blu-ray:

Boyhood arrives from Paramount Home Entertainment in a two-disc Blu-ray: Disc One being the Blu-ray, and Disc Two being a bare-bones DVD copy of the film. A cardboard slipcase replicating the front and back artwork comes with the initial pressing, and a Digital Ultraviolet slip has also been included.

Video and Audio:

As you might expect given the twelve-year shooting schedule and shifts in filmmaking perspective, Boyhood's visual style experiences some variation between each period in Mason's life, strengthening in detail clarity and color accuracy as time goes by. The consistent and beautiful thing about Universal's 1.78:1-framed, 1080p AVC encode comes in its film presence, where a healthy layer of grain -- and a few very slight white blips here and there -- can be spotted from start to finish. At first, greens appear a little artificial and skin tones err somewhat pinkish in hue, with unimpressive but suitable dimensionality in certain scenes (specifically when Linklater plays with depth of field) and some general dimness in mid-lit sequences. As time goes by, however, foliage appears more organically vibrant and skin tones become warmer and more natural, with the final couple of time periods looking absolutely fantastic in almost every regard. Black levels are, by and large, quite satisfying and evenly-balanced across the board, though, with a few darker sequences exhibiting oppressive contrast. Strands of hair and textiles of clothing constantly reflect the disc's grasp on finer details, while the vividness of neon colors -- in bowling alleys and college-town lights -- are universally vivid. There are limitations, but Boyhood looks pretty fantastic and indicative of Linklater's intentions.

From the opening chords of Coldplay's "Yellow", however, there's no debate over the necessary punch and clarity of this 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Music plays a big part in Boyhood, as it does with most of Linklater's films: the thump of drums, the pulse of urban music, and the subtle strumming of guitars offer impressive separation into the front and rear channels, actively engaging the lower-frequency channel. Yet there's also an impressive, sneaky amount of rear-channel ambience as well, especially in driving cars and outdoor atmosphere of camping and football games, reinforcing a substantial surround environment more frequently than expected. The bread and butter of the film, of course, is the dialogue, which fluctuates a bit in richness depending on the era -- a tad thinner in the early periods -- but always remains clear and discernible, becoming downright impressive once it gets beyond the early points. Without distortion and sounding entirely natural, it's a fantastic aural treatment. Spanish and English Descriptive audio tracks are available, along with English and Spanish subs.

Special Features:

We're only working with a pair of extras for Boyhood, a Q&A and a brief making-of piece, but they're both moderately satisfying. The 12-Year Project (19:11, 16x9 HD) is far too short for its own good: interviews with the cast at different points in the project's filming are edited together with comparable behind-the-scenes footage shot around the same time, with contemporary retrospective interviews with director Linklater and the cast spliced within. Hearing Linklater's ambition early on and seeing it evolve with each interview is great to see, offering insights on Ellar Coltrane at a young age and how they've had to adapt to his growth throughout the years, as well as how the film also focuses on the parents as much as the kids and the masculine/teenage themes explored later on. It's also cool to see Ethan Hawke and Linkater's daughter, Lorelei, interviewing each other at one of the later points in the story.

The other feature in a nearly hour-long Q&A With Richard Linklater and Cast (52:38, 16x9 HD), including: Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, and his daughter Lorelei. Recorded for Cinefamily shortly after a showing of the film, the discussion really get their hands dirty with the creation, themes, and difficulties of the experience, from the lack of ability to sign a contract for such a long project to collaboratively selecting the music and the growth of the kids as individuals. Lorelei and Ellar surrender much of the speaking time to the older participants, as Ethan Hawke and Richard Linklater are both well-seasoned and charismatic in these audiences (Hawke pays Coltrane a hefty compliment related to the Before ... series in there).

Final Thoughts:

Richard Linklater finally brings his ambitious decade-spanning project to a close with Boyhood, and it proves to be stronger achievement than the raw impressiveness of its gimmick. Shot over the course of twelve years with the same actors reprising their roles, the film depicts the physical and emotional growth of a boy, as well as his family, in an experience that both conceals its cinematic seams and relishes the jumps in time from a storytelling standpoint. A loose, organic narrative with gradual conflicts gives plenty of breathing room for Mason's development -- both the character himself and the actor, Ellar Coltrane, playing him -- resulting in a sprawling, heartening, and poetic depiction that comes about as close to capturing the full growth of a character over twelve years of childhood as one can expect. A more robust Blu-ray might come down the line given Linklater's close ties with a certain premium label, but Paramount's current Blu-ray sports exquisite audiovisual prowess and two solid -- if too-succinct -- featurettes. Highly Recommended.

Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site
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