Dir: Richard Linklater
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood – an epic yet intimate tale of one boy’s growth from age 6 to 18 shot piecemeal over the course of 12 years – amazingly and improbably proves worth the wait. This is the work of a master filmmaker at the top of his craft – the result of a series of assured choices that leads to scenes that weave a tapestry of a young life. Maybe you weren’t born in 1994, as the main character and actor was, but the story itself is universal in its telling. This is the story of growing up and growing into oneself, and rarely has it been told so well.
The movie opens to the strains of Coldplay’s breakout song Yellow, a massive hit in the early 2000’s that nicely sets the time period without being overly obvious. Boyhood is full of these cues – music, videogames, political references – that signify each time period. Ellar Coltrane portrays Mason, the titular character, and he’s introduced lying on the grass staring upwards. It’s a fitting scene as the character is an introspective dreamer. I suspect making Mason an introvert was intentional, as at least initially it means there’s not too many demands on the young actor while he literally grew into the role.
That narrative slack is taken up in the earlier scenes by Patricia Arquette as Mason’s mother and Ethan Hawke as the father. The movie opens with these characters already separated and drops hints at their shared history throughout the film. When Ethan Hawke’s character appears after a long absence to be a “weekend dad” and take his kids out for an afternoon we as the audience can already envision the arc – long-suffering mother puts up with irresponsible father who constantly disappoints his kids. It’s to the movie’s credit that the film elides the rote path and develops these characters fully and in unexpected ways. Arquette displays a simultaneous weariness and perseverance that makes the character feel lived-in and true, while Hawke shines in a career-best performance that was already full of them. Richard Linklater’s daughter Lorelei rounds out the main cast as Mason’s older sister Samantha. It’s hard at times to believe that you’re not watching an actual family interact, as the film has such a fly-on-the-wall aesthetic that’s packed with so many specific details that the narrative realism is rarely broken.
Episodic in nature by design, the time jumps are initially jarring as often the only initial indicator that time has elapsed is Ellar Coltrane’s growth spurts. Linklater doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand and wisely doesn’t show many of the traditionally “big” moments, but rather smaller moments that combine together to create a mosaic of this boy’s life. An exception and standout is Ethan Hawke’s spontaneous sex talk that is equally awkward, hilarious and heartfelt. We don’t see Mason’s first kiss, first beer, or first time having sex; instead we see examples that could have significant meaning or could eventually be lost in the sands of time. It’s simply moments that add up over time, and we’re left to assign import or not, to let it wash over us.
Mason is initially quite a passive character, but as he ages up his point-of-view is clarified and Ellar Coltrane is given more chances to emote. Mason’s artistic temperament and coming-of-age dovetail nicely with some subtle themes about the need to create and how one engages with the world, and it’s given a nice echo in Ethan Hawke’s arc as the father. Notions of family, responsibility, relationships, growth and ultimately independence are all touched on as we watch a young life unfold.
Boyhood owes a debt to not only the Seven Up! series, but Linklater’s own Before Sunrise series that checked in with a couple thrice in an 18-year period. Standing of the shoulders of such giants, Linklater manages to re-set the goalposts for ambitious storytelling. Rich in detail and shot through with a clear and specific sense of time and place, this is a film unlike any other and stirs such empathy that you can’t help but be taken on this remarkable 12-year journey. Buy the ticket and take the ride.