In an astonishing feat that echoes and even trumps some aspects of his time-spanning Before trilogy, filmmaker Richard Linklater has produced Boyhood, a thoroughly engaging, often moving, and quietly eloquent depiction of one boy’s childhood, from grade-school days to the start of college. It’s made all the more resonant by the fact that it was filmed by director-screenwriter Linklater in bits and pieces over 12 years, using the same principle actors throughout — a process wrought with potential pitfalls that were somehow circumvented or surmounted.
A self-possessed lad named Ellar Coltrane plays young Mason, who essentially grows up before our eyes in what could be the dramatic equivalent of time-lapse photography; Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, is Mason’s slightly older sister; and a couple of reliable professionals, Patricia Arquette and longtime Linklater leading man Ethan Hawke, are the kids’ parents, separated at the start of Boyhood. From the moment we meet them, all four of the core family members ring true. And though both kids were essentially amateurs when this project commenced, they never seem particularly self-conscious or clumsy in their interplay. In fact, the depth of their presence and skill in front of the lens grows as they age, which is certainly appropriate considering the subject of Boyhood.
The movie is rather lengthy at 165 minutes, but it’s never less then fascinating as it offers a depiction of family dynamics, functional and dysfunctional, and a series of insights and universal truths about the trials and joys of growing up that are wry, tender, sad, tense, and hopeful. Its verity, its spurts of interpersonal turbulence, and its moments of poetic stillness add to the patina of reality. There are no easy solutions when things go wrong in the lives of the family members — and there are genuine challenges that must be addressed.
Single mom Olivia (Arquette) has to fend for herself and her kids, while trying to move on from her ex, the detached Mason Sr. (Hawke). Mason Sr. is seen with a few new partners and continues to make what often comes off as a cavalier effort to be a father to Mason Jr. and Samantha. Olivia’s choices in men create conflict and angst — and loss. And, as they mature, the siblings must deal with moving house, academic struggles, adolescent romance, and other standard obstacles and circumstances one tends to encounter while growing up. But Linklater, his camera, and his actors manage to make the ordinary extraordinary and a regular family’s commonplace highs and lows the stuff of great drama.
A recent equivalent to Linklater’s achievement might be the flashback suburban sequences in Terrence Malick’s ambitious 2011 film, The Tree of Life. But, again, Boyhood has the benefit of observing its characters over time as the actors playing those parts genuinely get older.
There have been cinematic projects with similar intent and results. François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series followed the fictional adventures of the same character as portrayed by the same actor over the course of 20 years and five films. As mentioned above, Linklater’s Before movies — 1995’s Before Sunrise, 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight — traced the romantic relationship of a couple (Hawke and Julie Delpy) from their first meeting on a European train to a family vacation with their twin daughters. On the documentary side, the Up series began in 1964 with Seven Up, a British TV program about a group of 7-year-olds across various classes and economic circumstances. Director Michael Apted has returned to the same subjects every seven years since Seven Up to see how their lives are progressing.
In a serendipitous reflection of the Up series, Mason is 7 years old as Boyhood begins. Although we leave him when he reaches college, we’ve seen him go from an adorable, largely carefree little guy to a lanky, awkward, troubled teen to an increasingly assured young man preparing to go out into the world. We’ve heard his voice crack and deepen and watched as his relationships with his mother, sister, father, and stepparents change and ripen. It turns out to be a profoundly touching thing to witness.
You know that strange, sometimes revelatory feeling you can get when you look at old photo albums or video clips of yourself, your family, and friends. There are palpable, visible changes that the years have wrought as we progress from naïveté and innocence to hard-won wisdom; we can sometimes see growth, and sometimes decay; and on occasion, we see things that somehow still seem unaltered in one’s current visage. With its performers legitimately aging 12 years on screen, Boyhood is perhaps the first stand-alone film drama to honestly and stirringly bring that phenomenon to the big screen — and a remarkable accomplishment.
Boyhood opens at the Embarcadero Theater in San Francisco on July 18.