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SXSW 2014: Nordling Reviews BOYHOOD!

Nordling here.

I'm still reeling from BOYHOOD.  It's a couple of hours later, after I've seen it, and BOYHOOD just confirms that Richard Linklater is a master filmmaker, one of the most distinctive voices in cinema.  BOYHOOD pushes him up into the pantheon.  Linklater, to me, is interested in real truth - to make movies that manage to seize and take hold of the very wispy, smoky nature of life.  I don't know how he does it.  BOYHOOD is essential cinema, a masterpiece of tone and beauty.  There isn't a single moment in BOYHOOD that won't take root in someone's soul, there isn't a single moment that the audience will not recognize as true to life, beautiful and real and spiritual.  Linklater uses all his considerable talents - his skill with dialogue, his empathy and collaboration with the actors, including career bests from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and his wonderful use of the soundtrack that helps take note of the passage of time.

Someday, I'm going to program a movie marathon about what it's like to grow up in Texas.  There are more movies on the subject than you might think - movies like THE LAST PICTURE SHOW, WHIP IT, FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, or RUSHMORE all give us different perspectives on life here in this state.  While Richard Linklater's BOYHOOD takes place throughout many Texas locations (including Houston, San Marcos, and Austin), it's got something more universal in mind, and Mason's (the magnificent Ellar Coltrane) journey is our journey, regardless of where it takes place.  However, it probably will resonate more deeply for those people who live here.

If you didn't know already, BOYHOOD takes place over the space of 12 years, as young Mason grows up.  He lives with his mother Olivia (Arquette) and his sister Sam (the equally great Lorelei Linklater).  His mom and dad (Ethan Hawke) are divorced, and while Olivia is the more grounded of his two parents, providing for the siblings, Mason Sr. is more flighty, popping in and out of his children's lives.  Olivia has no job opportunities where she's at, so she packs up the kids and moves to Houston to attend college.  Mason Sr. also gets a job there, to try to play a more central role in his kids' lives.  There's no chance for a reconciliation for Olivia and Mason Sr., although the children secretly hope for it.

Olivia makes bad choices when it comes to the men in her life - although she is an intelligent woman, the men she decides to marry all have issues with alcohol, and one of them is even abusive.  Throughout it all, Mason Jr. attends school, makes friends (and loses them as he moves across the state), grows close to his father, and gets older.  BOYHOOD has no real narrative thrust, but simply a life being lived before the camera.  We share in Mason's triumphs, the joys, the good times and the bad, and as he grows older and into adulthood, Mason desperately doesn't want to make the wrong choices.  He's seen what that can do, and he wants to live his life the way he wants to live it.

What I most admired about BOYHOOD is that every moment leads into the next, and it all flows so organically that you have to step back and admire the intricate ambition that Richard Linklater has here.  This is epic cinema of the heart.  It feels so organic that it's difficult to believe how meticulously assembled the movie is.  Shot over the span of 12 years, we literally watch these characters grow older onscreen, and their physical changes parallel with the changes that happen to their hearts and souls.  No one is unchanged by the passage of time, and ideas that we once held to be rock-solid truth earlier in life become ephemeral as the lessons we experience change and mold us in different ways.  I've never seen a film get across this point as completely and accurately as BOYHOOD.

Even the adult characters change throughout the years in subtle and not-so-subtle ways - Hawke's Mason Sr. grows into a more responsible adult, and finds a real spiritual kinship with his son, while Arquette's Olivia finds true self-respect and self-worth in herself after dealing with so many problems with the men who enter her life.  Patricia Arquette gives the very best performance of her career here; she is revelatory and as the years go by, we can see her happiness and sorrow intertwine and make her into the complete person that she is.  Hawke also embraces Mason Sr. and as his life changes in myriad ways, Hawke shows us his journey in a compelling and realistic way.  Even Linklater's own daughter Lorelei, as Mason Jr's sister Samantha, gives us a complete arc as she goes through these twelve years.

But the centerpiece of the film is Ellar Coltrane, and this may be the best performance of a child actor in history.  In the early years, we can see the formation of a personality and the creation of a character, and Ellar is incredible as the young boy grown into a young man trying to navigate himself through this complicated world.  Even as a child, his performance shows incredible skill and control, and in the later years Coltrane seems to fully embody Mason Jr. that might not even be called acting in a purer sense, but simply filling the character body and soul.  Some might ask how much onscreen is Ellar and how much is the character he's playing, but Linklater wisely is able to create a full arc throughout the years with his directing and writing that feels almost more true than reality.  The editing, by Sandra Adair, is masterful and the cinematography by Lee Daniel and Shan Kelly is transportative and beautiful.  There are no visual cues to the passage of time (although the fantastic soundtrack helps mark the passing years), which makes BOYHOOD feel like a real movie and not simply vignettes of a lived life.  It's also incredibly accessible, and at times very, very funny.  Each emotional beat feels genuine, and our empathy with these characters and their experiences is deep and profound.

While BOYHOOD is long, it never feels it.  In fact, as we say goodbye to these characters and to the wonderous, magnificent world Linklater has created, we do not want to leave.  But, like life itself, the only constant is change.  Each moment is now, and it is ongoing.  The movie of our life plays before our eyes, and that singular moment we learn we can direct it and change it is the true passage of childhood into adulthood.  BOYHOOD is one of the best movies about growing up ever made.  I feel privileged to have seen it.  I will never forget it.  This film received the only standing ovation I've ever seen at the Paramount here at SXSW, and it was well deserved.  What a magical moment to experience here, and what a complete masterpiece BOYHOOD is.

Nordling, out.

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