It’s impossible to talk about Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” without talking about how the film was made. This isn’t, however, a case of technical innovation or pushing the boundaries of special effects. A passion project of the highest order, Linklater and company filmed “Boyhood” over the course of 12-years, with the cast and crew coming together annually to shoot for a while before moving on to the rest of their lives. This is a technique that has been used often in documentary filmmaking, and while this approach could be a gimmick, the film uses it to great effect, and the result is a beautiful, unique coming of age story recorded and shown like you’ve never seen before.
Rarely is it one single event that defines our lives. Instead it’s the collective effect of everything we experience that makes up who we are, which is what Linklater understands and what “Boyhood” delivers. This is such a different approach to this type of story, and is touching and authentic in ways you rarely encounter. The story follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family—mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and estranged father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke)—from the start of his compulsory school career through the time when he goes off to college. It’s earnest and heartfelt, and you feel like you’re truly watching this kid grow up because you are.
“Boyhood” builds in a unusual way. It’s like every year of Mason’s life is encapsulated in a short film and you’re seeing them back-to-back. Aside from the core group there are a handful of recurring characters, childhood friends that show up over the course of few chapters, and, most importantly, Olivia’s parade of dubious lovers. You don’t always see the implosion, but from the results, you know what happened. Situations come and go. Mason is bullied in junior high, a teenage Samantha argues endlessly with her mother, romantic connections blossom, fade, and crumble into dust, and relationships tear and are repaired. It doesn’t sound like much, the action is quiet and so subtle that there are times you wonder where this is all heading, but the cumulative effect adds up to a lifetime.
Clocking in at just over 160-minutes, “Boyhood” could definitely use a trim here and there, but it never feels overlong. This is a uniquely satisfying film experience, full of irresistible charm, compassion, and heart. Given the expanded perspective and extended time period, you watch the characters, both child and adult, evolve and mature in a way that engages you in new ways. Coltrane grows from a precocious kid trying to find his way in a hard situation into a teen with big dreams and his own ideas on the world, full of existential musings. He’s the weird kid and he’s growing up. Though Olivia is technically an adult, and the most responsible one to boot, she has just as much growing and changing to do as everyone else, trying to break out of a variety of unhealthy cycles.
Mason Jr. is the center, though Mason Sr. is the best character. Hawke is fantastic, as good here as he’s been maybe since “Training Day,” though in truth I haven’t seen “Before Midnight.” At the outset, he’s out of the picture for years at a time. A failing and failed musician with a muscle car and a slacker roommate, he’s the fun parent who pops in once a month or so to undermine the no-fun responsible parent. Like everyone else, he’s trying to find his way, but for all his flaws, he tells things straight, maybe too straight. Giving the sex talk to his kids who are obviously old enough to already know is one of the highlights of the movie, but there are many great moments. Out of everyone, he’s the character who has the most complete arc.
Throughout “Boyhood” there are little sprinkles of Linklater’s trademark weirdness. Every once in a while the film reminds you that this is in fact the same guy behind “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused.” Touches like a neighborhood kid who may have Tourette’s Syndrome popping up for one shot, and Linklater’s ability to cast pitch perfect bullies that only need a line or two, are idiosyncratic embellishments that are wholly his own. These moments, too, are part of what create a complete picture. Everyone has this sort of seemingly random thing in their life, from a weird neighborhood denizen down the block to a strange experience in a movie theater, and they’re as much a part of who and what we are as the big events and significant people that stick around for years. They provide the texture and depth that set our lives apart, and capturing that completeness, that delicate complexity, is what sets “Boyhood” apart, and is why you should go out and see this if you have the chance.