Quiet truths and big explosions at the movies: “Boyhood”

It’s summer, so moviegoers must by law shut down their brains and become laser fodder in extravaganzas like “Soldiers of the Solar System” or whatever’s raking in the megamillions now.

But if you feel like keeping your brain — and heart — alive while ducking those mandatory big explosions, here’s an enthusiastic movie recommendation: “Boyhood” by Richard Linklater.

You may have heard about the unique way Linklater built this intimate exploration of a Texas kid’s typical childhood: he filmed “Boyhood” a few days at a time over the course of a dozen years. We meet Mason Evans Jr. (and the actor who plays him) when he’s a babyfaced first grader; we drop him off again, facial hair and earring and all, on his first day of college.

The occasional leap in time challenges us to catch up, because in each case Mason is the same kid while obviously a different kid too. His body lengthens and his voice drops, he loses interest in video games and gains it in girls — even while retaining a certain sad, mumbly introspection that’s clearly the core of Mason at every age.

Where’s that gentle, stubborn moodiness come from? Before the film even begins, Mason’s family life has already hit the skids. Dad followed his bliss to Alaska about a year earlier, we learn, and nobody knows when they’ll see him again. Meanwhile, overstretched Mom fights with new her boyfriend about her lack of free time. When Mason Sr. turns up again, the fighting intensifies.

Mason observes it from the upstairs window. He knows, more or less, what’s up. Children, the film emphasizes at every turn, understand a lot more than grownups like to think they do.

When Mom marries an educated, enlightened professional man at last, what seems at first like a wonderful, healthy, healing situation turns shockingly bad – but in a routine, totally realistic way. That’s the magic of this “Boyhood.” There are, in fact, a handful of explosions in this film — but they’re the sorts of everyday explosions we’ve all experienced. No laser guns or intergalactic anything involved. “This movie,” Linklater told The Washington Post, “is simply a collection of intimate little moments. No one much bigger than the other … All the kind of stuff that would get cut out of other movies.”

Disappointment and sadness abound in “Boyhood,” but don’t get the idea that it’s wall-to-wall tragedy. Mason’s home is broken and his mother’s attempts to rebuild it seem doomed, but many other kinds of love are busy at work here too. Mason gains a rustic stepfamily that seems awfully different from himself, but their wholehearted embrace of him is moving.

Most crucially for a teenager, he gains a cute girlfriend.

Mason Sr. returns to do the right thing; he’s clearly one of those dudes who lived too fast when young, but maturity is catching up now in a way that becomes him. But even that sparks one of those quiet explosions: when Dad sacrifices his classic sportscar for a family minivan, teenaged Mason protests — mumbingly and shruggingly, as always — that Dad must have forgotten, the sportscar was supposed to be his 16th birthday present.

And there’s a sweet scene where Dad, insisting on doing his parental duty no matter what, plunges into a hilariously awkward conversation about sex and condoms with Mason’s sister, who nearly dies of embarrassment — but feels the love and only turns pink and laughs instead of running screaming from the table.

Fathers — and father figures — are the big questions marks in “Boyhood.” Dad is back and increasingly lovable as the years roll on, but too many other men in the movie turn out to be jerks. Maybe they’re swallowed by their own disappointment in life. Maybe that’s why they start out warm and insightful but end up seething. It’s hard to say. This is Mason’s movie, and while he knows a lot, he sure doesn’t have all the answers.

All of which demonstrates the real challenge for Mason: Fortifying himself against the typically tough life that’s already clobbered him. Not turning into another one of those cranky old men who’ve veered so far from the promise of their own boyhoods.In the end, as we take our leave of nearly adult Mason after 12 years of ups and downs, there’s an unmistakable look of freedom and hope on his soulful face.

It’s a great movie for thoughtful parents.

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