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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Boyhood' is as close as anyone has ever gotten to 'real life' in a feature film

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Ethan Hawke, right, stars as Mason and Ellar Coltrane stars as Mason Jr. in “Boyhood.” (Special Photo: IFC)

Boyhood

(R)

2 1/2 out of 4 stars

A great many critics — for valid reasons — have jumped aboard the “Boyhood” bandwagon and have lauded its many triumphs with most of them mistaking approach and technique for content and your appreciation (or lack thereof) of the movie will depend entirely on your viewpoint of those factors. Whether you love it, hate it or land somewhere in-between few will be able to not be thoroughly wowed with the devotion and craft that went into making it.

If you don’t already know, writer/director Richard Linklater began production on “Boyhood” in 2002 with the express goal of filming it over a space of 12 years. Ironically “12 Years” was the original title but Linklater changed it as to not get it confused with last year’s “12 Years a Slave.” Every year for a couple of weeks at a time Linklater would assemble his principal cast of four to give what is the most accurate and natural portrayal of aging ever captured for a feature film.

Getting four actors to be available even for just two weeks a year is a minor miracle and this is the principal reason so many critics are fawning all over the movie, but they are technically wrong when they say it’s the first time it’s ever been done. Director Michael Apted has managed to assemble a group of British non-actors every seven years for his “Up” documentary series over the span of a half-century.

If you look past the timing aspect of the production what you’re left with is a high-end, nearly-three-hour fictional home movie that is stunning in its modesty and complete lack of pretension. “Boyhood” is as close as anyone as ever gotten to “real life” in a feature film but there are many movie fans who are not real interested in paying money for something they get for free every day.

The story starts in the wake of a divorce between Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason (Ethan Hawke) and the beginning of her upcoming challenge as a single mother. Not a bad guy so much as he is a stoner, unmotivated and unfocused, Mason eventually makes a concerted effort be involved in his childrens’ lives while also developing a civil relationship with Olivia.

Watching Hawke and Arquette age ever so slightly (she gets heavier while he gets grayer) isn’t what you’d call gripping; it’s what we see taking place with their children that is at the core of the film. Going from mere tykes to young adults before our eyes are older sibling Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) and her baby brother MJ (Ellar Coltrane). Each has their cute formative period, their awkward early teen phase and the sobering moments where adulthood takes over fulltime.

As the title implies, the bulk of the story focuses on MJ and he is remarkably unremarkable. He’s not bratty, doesn’t get into trouble with the law, loves his family and is soft-spoken to the point of often blending into the background. There’s hardly a mention of any interest in sex and his “experimental” drug use is negligible. Apart from an array of odd hair styles, unchecked facial hair and an earring, he could be any kid in America. This might be Linklater’s point but as movie characters go, MJ is terribly unengaging and terminally boring.

Apart from Olivia and Mason’s infrequent minor squabbles and their children’s teasing of each in the first hour, there is nothing resembling dramatic tension for the bulk of the story. In recent interviews, Linklater has stated that he started production with only a skeletal screenplay and the actors often improvised their situations and dialogue and more often than not it shows. The arguable highlights (some may say lowlights) are what takes place with Olivia’s second and third husbands — both major alcoholics — whose moods range from sedate to violent. It’s powerful stuff to be sure but also unpleasant to witness.

On the fan-based site IMDb, “Boyhood” is already proving to be highly divisive but not for the usual reasons. It’s not the content at all, but again the style in which it was made. As with many aspects of the entertainment industry, there’s no such thing as bad press for movies; negative reviews and word-of-mouth still gets people talking and disagreeing which is always preferable to no one caring and/or ignoring it. On that level Linklater has succeeded in spades. (IFC)