It could have just been written off as some gimmick. But in the hands of director Richard Linklater a film shot over 12 years becomes something much more profound. Boyhood is so much more than an honest chronicle of actors aging over the course of a film. Linklater knows something about developing a story in real-time to achieve a deeper existential snapshot of humanity while still engaging the audience. At one end of the spectrum there is the “Before” series (see my review here). And on the other there are experimental works like Waking Life (2001) and A Scanner Darkly (2006). Let’s also not forget Linklater has a terrific angle on youth, from little kids to high schoolers (Dazed and Confused , School of Rock  and Bad New Bears ). All of his talents in those films blend together elegantly for Boyhood, a film bound to go down in his career as his masterpiece.
What sets this film apart from other family dramas is the liberty granted by time. Growth literally unfolds naturally, unencumbered by contrived obstacles or plot twists. When you consider the dictates of consistent character behavior over a period of years in most movies of such time spans, it demands the viewer suspend disbelief that it was actually shot over a period of a few months (usually a maximum of three). You can have makeup and effects, but a stagey quality, even on a subtle level, still hangs over the action.
Ironically, in Boyhood, what isn’t a special effect has a rather magical effect as real kids and adults grow up in front of our eyes. In Linklater’s sensibly crafted script, the characters are allowed room to be humanly fallible not in a sense that feels necessary to move a plot along but in a feeling honest to becoming a person, which is really what Boyhood is about. Just like growing up should change you, a sense of time passing has a great influence on not just the title character but those who make up his family. They hardly seem to act. It feels like nature or skimming through a family photo album that covers a period of years.
One will be hard-pressed to find a film more concerned with the mundane that can unfold over nearly three hours and remain consistently engaging. Part of it lies in the ever-curious sensation the viewer will feel about watching the actors age, but another part is in the film’s light-handed craft. The plot is easy to sum up: 6-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up over the course of 12 years in a broken home with his similarly-aged sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his mom (Patricia Arquette) while his dad (Ethan Hawke) pops in and out of his life. An imperfect life allows for the perfect drama for the boy at the center of the film. Add a few jerk stand-in father figures, the inevitable awkward transition from child to teenager and the friends and loves who pass through his life, and you have the film. Though Mason endures commonplace obstacles that are hardly the stuff of headlines, much less summer film spectacle, these are the events in life that stick through memory and shape us. Flipping through a lingerie catalog as a boy, breaking into a construction site with friends, finding your mother on the floor with your stepfather standing over her. Linklater treats these encounters with a respect that belies the impact of moments that shape persona. In a sense, Mason is riding the wave of growing up. That he does so with an often composed stoicism, speaks to the discovery of his power as a young man.
Over the course of the film, the inconsistency of the fleeting nature of persona comes unobtrusively into focus. The idea of innocence lost between the ages of 6 and 18 need not be punctuated with melodramatic events. From our first meeting of the mostly quiet Mason, it is apparent he is a pensive child. His eyes are focused on the sky. As an older teen, he muses aloud about his place in life, the world and the universe and how it all connects. It’s almost as if we are watching the boy learn the language he needed to express himself.
Of course, Linklater does not forget the adults. There are moments for the parents to grow and learn. There’s an undeniable fear of fatherhood coming from the nomadic father. Exactly where he goes to work and live (rumors of Alaska) while Mason and Samantha attend elementary school under the care of their single mom, remains a mystery. All we can see is that the children like him when he’s around and hate to see their parents argue. Mom gets the unromantic raw deal. She spends every moment she can with her children, unlike the spectral father, who the children can easily romanticize in absence. Her desperate attempt to have a father for the kids and a husband for herself leads to some terrible choices. Meanwhile, Dad has a lot of growing up left to do before he can come to any understanding of his role as a father.
None of this could be sold without the acting. From a face loaded with silent wonder to the laid back delivery of Linklater’s script, Coltrane delivers. He approaches his character with a naturalism that feels authentic and endearing. Arquette also deserves a special mention for the thankless role of a mother who cannot seem to get the men right in her life and dishes out unconditional love for her seldom appreciative children, as if it is instinct. She also fluctuates in weight (ed: as does Hawke), but never makes it an issue as she ages with grace as a woman who indeed sacrifices for her children in a heroic manner without any histrionics but with a mix of sympathetic love, fear and duty.
There are many things to consider in the film. The witty cultural reference points from pop songs to the Harry Potter series offer sly time stamps that feel real and genuine. The film’s low-key color palette creates an almost impressionistic effect, inviting the viewer to fill in the blanks with memories of his or her own childhood or memories of their own children they have seen grow up before their own eyes. It’s worth noting that though shot over 12 years, the quality of the image remains consistent. Technology in filmmaking would change so much and so fast over the years this film covers, and Linklater’s decision to shoot in 35mm proved wise. The digital image has grown by leaps and bounds when you consider how dull it looked in 2002.
There are many ways to approach this film, but my favorite is to think of it as the blossoming of a young person’s consciousness. From the silence in the gaze of Coltrane at the start of the film to his rambling musings, which are something out of Waking Life at the end, possibilities seem boundless. Experiences both external and internal have shaped our hero, but there is also a sense of self coming into development. The film is so consistently interesting throughout, from one subtle yet profound growth spurt to the next, that, by the end of it, it will be hard to let these characters go. You almost hope that maybe Linklater will keep following up with these characters with a film about Mason’s adulthood. He surprised us by turning Before Sunrise into a trilogy, after all.
Boyhood runs 165 minutes and is rated R (for growing up). IFC Films invited me to a preview screening for the purposes of this review.
South Florida screening update:
Boyhood is expanding at indie art houses soon. Here are the following venues with scheduled screenings:
- O Cinema Wynwood in Miami, Aug. 8, at 6:30 p.m. (see event page)
- Miami Beach Cinematheque, Aug. 29, at 8:30 p.m. (see calendar)
It opened at the following theaters in South Florida, Friday, July 25 (Note: the Coral Gables Art Cinema will have a live video-link Q&A with the star of the film, Ellar Coltrane, this Saturday, July 26, at the 6:15 pm screening of the film):
- Coral Gables Art Cinema
- Regal South Beach
- AMC Aventura
- Boca Carmike Palace 20
- Miami: AMC Sunset Place 24
- Fort Lauderdale: The Classic Gateway Theatre
- Hollywood: Regal Oakwood
- Pompano: Carmike Broward 18 (Formerly Muvico Pompano 18), Regal Cypress Creek
- Sunrise: Regal Sawgrass
- Boca: Living Room Cinemas, Shadowood 16
- West Palm: Carmike Parisian 20
- Royal Palm Beach: Regal Royal Palm
- Indian River: Indian River 24
(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)