‘Boyhood’ provided me with one of the best movie-going experiences of my life. If it doesn’t end up on the #1 spot on my Top 10 Films of this year, then 2014 will be a record year in cinema.
A boy, and his family, grow and change over the course of a dozen years, but in ways we’ve never seen. That is because director Richard Linklater shot (on 35mm film) in 39 days over the course of a dozen years with the same core cast. No lookalikes plugged into roles. The making of this movie alone is so inspired – an audacious tightrope of an experiment.
What a risky undertaking. Cast members could have pulled out, changed their minds, withdrawn from acting entirely, or have scheduling conflicts with other projects. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the young man at the center of the film. It was a gamble to choose him as a round-faced, wide-eyed six-year-old. What if he grew up to be a terrible actor? The actress playing the boy’s sister is Richard Linklater’s daughter (Lorelei Linklater). What if six years ago she realized she didn’t want to be in dad’s movie? Fortunately for Linklater (and for us), everyone was joined in his commitment to the project. Ellar Coltrane blossoms into a young man with a striking physical resemblance to Ethan Hawke (who makes his eighth appearance in a Linklater film, this time playing the boy’s father).
“Cinema is far too rich and capable a medium to be left merely to the storytellers.” Peter Greenway once said. I have been talking about ‘Boyhood’ a lot since I have seen it; a friend texted me and asked what ‘Boyhood’ was about. A few moments go by. I still don’t have a response. It isn’t that there isn’t a story. But, there isn’t a plot in the traditional sense. Apart from growing up, getting older, and life itself unfolding around you. ‘Life Itself’, the title of Roger Ebert’s memoir which Steve James’ new documentary is based on, could have easily applied here.
The film’s ambition is matched by its execution. We see Mason grow from a first grader to a college freshman. The movie is about the small moments from childhood you never forget, the major events that shape your future, and all that is in between. Listening to music. Arguing. Moving away from friends. Struggling to fit in a new school. Crying over a bad haircut. Suffering a first real heartbreak. Finding your passion. Deciding what you want to do for the rest of your life.
‘Boyhood’ runs at 166 minutes but it zips by, and by the time the credits roll, you won’t want it to be over. Do you have any idea how rare that is? You feel so immersed with these people. It unfolds like a documentary truth. The cumulative sensation of caring deeply for this young man and the people around him ultimately sneaks up on you with a surprising punch. You truly feel as though you have gotten to know these people, and that they are real.
In the first scene which doubles as the movie’s poster image, we see Mason lying on his back in green grass, staring at the sky and daydreaming while waiting for his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) to pick him up. What is in his head? We don’t know. The movie similarly contemplates the fleeting nature of existence.
A divorced single mom, Olivia is raising Mason and his older sister, Samantha alone while the kids’ mostly absent father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is on some selfish adventure in Alaska. Since the film is called ‘Boyhood, Lorelei Linklater’s character doesn’t get the same level of attention but has close to two-thirds the screen-time Ellar Coltrane has, and she steals every scene she is in as the annoyed voice of reason (we also see her grow from a precocious brat to a confident young woman).
We follow this family from 2001 – 2013. They weather a good deal of churn in their home lives. During this time, they move around a lot all over Texas, live in apartments and houses (and dorms) of various sizes. The movie is called ‘Boyhood’, but the world Linklater has conceived is grand enough to include motherhood. Olivia will find herself, go back to school, experience peaks and valleys financially, explore new romantic relationships, become a college instructor, and be an influential person within her community. She wants the best for her children but also for herself and makes some terrible decisions along the way. This is especially true as she looks to replace her ex husband and “fix” her broken family. She is fixed on the notion that husband + wife + 2 kids = happiness (beyond the passage of time, ‘Boyhood’ explores questions about social conditioning, particularly normalcy).
One character in particular (an alcoholic played by Marco Perella) is an awful, abusive, terrible human being and one of the most appalling characters I’ve seen on screen in a long time. I noticed he has a “W” magnet on his refrigerator, so I know where his political allegiance lies.
Mason Sr. is sometime present in their lives as the bohemian free spirit enjoying the life of a non-custodial parent. At first, he seems like an eternal adolescent – his most prized possession is his GTO muscle car; he takes the kids bowling, camping, to baseball games, and to post campaign lawn signs for Barack Obama in 2008 whilst yanking out the McCain signs. He fully acknowledges that he isn’t the most responsible, reliable father in the world. And, like everyone else in the film, he changes and the years bring forth some wisdom (delayed maturation and all; he is maturing on screen along with his kids).
All the characters are complicated; they are all flawed, they make bad decisions, but they all figure it out, and you’re so invested in these characters because you’ve been with them all this time and because the movie is kind to its characters. The knowledge that comes back to you over and over as you’re watching it (that we’re watching them over a 12-year period) washes over you with warmth and poignancy. Mr. Linklater is one of the best filmmakers working today and is so humane in terms of understanding people’s foibles and not judging them for those mistakes. There is a lovely scene when Mason Sr.’s new in-laws, who live in rural Texas, give a teenaged Mason Jr. the gift of an engraved bible and a shotgun, and there’s nothing snarky or ironic about it. The gifts are given with good intentions and the gifts are accepted with good intentions.
There are many moments in this movie that are recognizable and human. One of the things I love that Linklater does is he very subtly weaves in references to technology and pop-culture to mark where we are in time. Thankfully avoiding the trappings of coming-of-age movies, there is no voice-over narration, and there are no title cards announcing the passage of time. Mason and Samantha get a little older and change into someone else (new versions of their former selves). It’s also the changes in geopolitical references, or when we notice the music and technology change that we realize where we are in time. It’s tough for the filmmakers to do because they have to anticipate what will be recognizable in 2014 at the time they’re shooting it; in telling the story at a given point in time knowing the full product will be released years later.
‘Boyhood’ reminded me of my two all-time favorite documentaries – ‘Hoop Dreams’, and the ‘Up’ series. Both projects span a number of years in the lives of their subjects (a half-decade for ‘Hoop Dreams’ and the ‘Up’ films have spanned half a century and revisit their subjects every seven years). These documentaries were ambitious enough to take on this idea, but it has never been done within a narrative framework in such a compact span of screen time. Until now. And this makes ‘Boyhood’ a landmark achievement in cinematic history. It is a pitch-perfect living time capsule. It channels the flow of real life. One minute, Mason is dressed up as a Hogwarts wizard in training to buy a copy of ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’; and then, just like that, his voice drops, he is sporting facial hair, wearing earrings and nail polish, and speechifies about his generation’s addiction to Facebook. Where did the time go?
But, beyond the gimmick of it, the film is well written, well acted, and very observant about just what growing up is like and the mistakes you make, and what you learn along the way (and what you don’t).
‘Boyhood’ is very tightly scripted the way the ‘Before’ movies are but it feels lucid and improvised. That’s the neat, tricky feat Linklater pulls off with the ‘Before’ movies. The big 30-minute argument at the end of ‘Before Midnight’ feels like you’re watching people in the moment tearing each other apart. In ‘Boyhood’, you feel as though natural, loose conversations are happening but the script acknowledges character pauses and speech imperfections.
‘Boyhood’ reminds us just how precious life is. And it does so without amping up the conflicts, the crisis, or the resolution. As an example, the movie examines divorce and its rippled effects with minimal emotion expressed. It allows us to feel the passing formative years without pushing every button emotionally. If Olivia’s story feels somewhat dismissive, I believe that the shapelessness could either be a consequence of its high ambitions or the filmmaker’s intention to remind us of appreciating what we have in our lives while we have them.
By the time young Mason is off to college and his mother finds herself feeling sentimental about his impending departure, we feel the same things about ‘Boyhood’ coming to an end, and about watching this child we’ve seen mature going out on his own into the world. I mentioned the film’s signature moment of young Mason lying on his back looking at the sky. Twelve years later, he is still looking. But, this time, with someone next to him. He is about to begin a new chapter.
Don’t be daunted by the runtime. ‘Boyhood’ is only one minute longer than ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’. This is a masterful work of art. I would love to be able to check in with Mason and Samantha in another decade. It may be years before any other filmmaker can match the ‘Boyhood’s achievement. QED.