Boyhood isn’t a tough sell. A movie that takes place over the course of 12 years and is filmed over that same period of time, so the actors and characters grow up before our very eyes — who wouldn’t want to check that out? It’s a stunt. Something we haven’t seen before.
The real challenge on the director’s part is to make a film that goes beyond that gimmick, something that means more than just watching a child age in fast-forward. It’s an ambitious undertaking, and while Boyhood isn’t flawless, it’s a momentous achievement. Richard Linklater manages to capture not only the passage of time, but also the emotions and meaning that go along with it.
The plot is amorphous. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) live with their single mother (Patricia Arquette) in Texas. Their father (Ethan Hawke) makes periodic appearances, taking the kids bowling and camping, playing guitar for them; where their mother is responsible, their father is unreliable but loveable. The film begins when Mason is six years old and ends when he is heading off to college. We see him go through a series of haircuts, crushes, best friends, and hobbies. We see him change schools several times, and struggle with the “parade of drunken assholes” that are his mother’s new husbands and boyfriends. The transitions between his different ages are seamless, a tasteful choice that allows the film to focus on the overall narrative, rather than the effect of the actor changing with age. The passage of time is marked instead by songs on the radio, pop culture references, Oregon Trail on the computer, iPhones in people’s hands.
In my eyes, Boyhood’s success lies in two factors and the interaction between them: Linklater’s writing and Coltrane’s acting. Linklater has a knack for developing characters through rich dialog, and the conversations are really what make this film work. In interviews, Coltrane has discussed how when the actors grew old enough, Linklater would simply provide scenes with a basic structure and then allow the actors to improvise and take on the characters themselves. The result is that the characters feel real, and their conversations interesting and authentic (sometimes hilariously so, sometimes heartbreakingly so). Coltrane is also a joy to watch, open and genuine and confident even in the throes of puberty. By the end of the film, we’ve fallen in love with Mason — how can we not? We feel like we just grew up with him. The combination of Linklater’s writing and Coltrane’s performance means that Boyhood doesn’t feel like a movie; it feels like something lived through.
Hawke’s performance is another big standout. At first Mason Senior seems like the classic young father who isn’t ready for the responsibilities of parenthood, but he quickly sheds that archetype to become one of the more multidimensional characters. As impulsive as he is, he seems to have his finger on the pulse of the film’s emotional message — to be present, to seize the moment and let the moment seize you. His story is particularly interesting when contrasted with Mason’s mother’s, a more traditional and responsible route, but a route that seems to leave her unfulfilled.
The film is not without its flaws. There are some sentiments that border on saccharine. There are a few brutally heavy-handed scenes (a moment of bullying in the junior high bathroom, some textbook peer pressure involving high school boys and beer) and some characters that are never fully fleshed out (most noticeably Samantha, whom we experience only as the snarky older sister). But ultimately, it’s easy to forgive the film of any missteps. Boyhood isn’t a meant to be neat, perfect package. It’s a messy and meandering film, and in that way it’s life-affirming and gorgeous.