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Dennis Perkins

Dennis Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Auburn with his lovely wife, the writer Emily L. Stephens, and their cat, Cooper. When not watching all the movies ever made or digging up stories about the Maine film scene, he can be found writing for the AV Club and elsewhere. The rest of the time, he's worrying about the Red Sox.

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Posted: August 12, 2014

Linklater’s “Boyhood” transcends its buzzworthy premise

This may be the most thrilling two hour and 45 minute film with the least action ever made.

Written by: Dennis Perkins
"Boyhood" promotional image

“Boyhood” promotional image

He’s a dreamy eyed little boy, first seen stretched out, staring at the sky. We learn his name’s Mason when his mom (Patricia Arquette) picks him up from school, that he has a sister named Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and that he’s thoughtful and curious, if not especially interested in schoolwork. Gradually we hear about an absent father (played by Ethan Hawke), who, when he appears after years away, is boisterous and affectionate – and sort of wild. Through the opening scenes of Richard Linklater’s newest film “Boyhood,” Mason takes all this in with a quiet watchfulness.

And then he’s a year older. His mom’s gone back to school and is dating a respectable-seeming professor. His dad picks him up on weekends in his muscle car, sometimes to go camping in the Texas wilderness. He rides bikes and experiments with graffiti with his friends.

And then he’s a year older.

Each year, the boy’s eyes stay the same, even as Mason starts to grow, eventually taking on a sleepy adolescent scraggliness. If you didn’t know the story behind the film, you’d wonder at the perfect casting, one stage of Mason’s childhood flowing seamlessly into the next. Of course, knowing the unprecedented story behind the movie’s development – Linklater cast Ellar Coltrane in 2002 when the boy was seven, and then returned to Mason’s story for a few days every year over the next 11 years – makes for interesting movie trivia. But it’s also largely irrelevant to the quiet power of “Boyhood,” the best movie of 2014 so far.

Linklater has worked with this sort of long-form drama before, with his trilogy “Before Sunrise,” Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight” following a single couple’s relationship (Hawke and Julie Delpy) through three films and 18 years. “Boyhood” takes a similar approach to Mason’s story, and the results are similarly revelatory and moving. Like Michael Apted’s ongoing documentary “Up” series, “Boyhood” derives tremendous power from the simple experience of watching children grow up. As viewers, we provide layers of meaning to every change, to every thing—good or bad—that affects the children we’re watching. But, as fascinating a social experiment as the “Up” films are, “Boyhood” fashions a fictional framework for the real transformation of the child on the screen—and the effect in the hands of Linklatter and the remarkable Coltrane is consistently astounding.

Which isn’t to say that “Boyhood” revels in melodrama, or surrounds Mason with drama, even. (This may be the most thrilling two hour and 45 minute film with the least action ever made.) There are many times when the film introduces events (bullies, drugs, divorces, young love, one truly terrifying sequence of poor step-parenting) that seem to teeter on the edge of predictability, only to reassert Linklater’s sure-handed thesis – that children are both unbelievably resilient and heartbreakingly fragile at the same time. And that who they become is made up of an accumulation of moments – some so small and seemingly insignificant that no one but the child himself ever knows they’ve occurred at all.

That “Boyhood” transcends its buzzworthy premise is a testament to Linklater (cementing his place as one of the best, most innovative American directors we have) and Coltrane, who, at every stage of the film, delivers a genuinely inhabited, natural performance. Hardly an idealized character, Mason is a resolutely regular kid – sometimes difficult, or prone to alternating flights of teenaged inarticulateness and self-righteousness. Like “Boyhood,” Mason is as heartbreakingly, mysteriously beautiful as life itself.

“Boyhood” begins a run at the Nickelodeon Cinema on Friday. I strongly suggest you see it.

COMING TO LOCAL SCREENS

SPACE Gallery, Portland | www.space538.com

Friday-Sunday: “Life Itself.” This documentary about the late, great film critic Roger Ebert is sure to be the beginning of our culture’s worship of movie nerds everywhere. Right? Anyone? Well, it’s a great movie about loving movies anyway.

FRONTIER, Brunswick | www.explorefrontier.com

Tuesday: “Finding Fela.” Acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) helms this portrait of legendary Nigerian Afrobeat musician and social activist Fela Kuti.

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