Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
Boyhood is a unique achievement. That much is obvious and undeniable. Director Richard Linklater assembled his cast and crew on an annual basis over the course of 12 years to follow a boy (Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane) from the age of five to 18.
Plot-wise, Boyhood does not sound like an exciting film. However, given the unique nature of the film, it is impossible to describe the story without doing the film as a whole a great disservice. There is no MacGuffin here, no ultimate goal upon a pedestal that these characters would do anything to achieve… Rather, this is the story of a working class family in contemporary Texas simply trying to survive, mature, and better themselves.
It is a heartbreaking simply conceit, the sort of stuff that American indie cinema thrives on. But seeing the real actors aging before your eyes over the course of the film vastly increases your empathy for the characters they play, ensuring an unexpectedly impactful emotional gut-punch than this film might otherwise achieve.
Though one might presuppose that the idea of the actors aging 12 years over the course of close to three hours might seem quite gimmicky, it never feels like it.
Quite the opposite, in fact. By the end of the film, you feel a real connection to the fictional characters just the same way you might after watching a TV show for ten years in real time – especially in the case of Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter, who plays Mason’s sister) where it is clear the actor’s real evolving identities have in some way informed the evolution of their fictional characters’ personalities.
This sort of bravado filmmaking has never been done before, and Linklater and his producers deserve all the kudos they’ve received for making it happen. The film’s investors knew going in that they would not see any profit for at least 13 years after they agreed to be a part of this experiment, making them officially some of the bravest businesspeople in the film industry. They believed in Linklater’s crazy idea, and are surely now reaping the benefits for doing so.
Although the approach to shooting this introspective epic is understandably what most of the discussion surrounding the film has fixated on, it would be amiss to overlook other creative quirks and accomplishments of the film.
Though the film is called Boyhood and Mason is our central character, the fact is that he is an unconventionally passive protagonist. When the film starts he is just five years old and so understandably has very little say over his own life and his family’s destiny. Instead, he is at the mercy of his single mother’s (Patricia Arquette) decisions as their small family relocate, and she enters into doomed relationships with seemingly nice guys who turn out to be assholes. Both happen more than once.
In many ways, this is Arquette’s film. She turns in an amazing performance: growing from a struggling twenty-something single mother with the weight of the world on her shoulders into – eventually – a confident forty-something who is successful both as a parent and as an independent woman. She is the real heart of the film. This is without a doubt the role of Arquette’s career – and she absolutely kills it.
The film is in many ways an enthusiastic acknowledgement of the thankless work done by single mothers throughout the US on a daily basis. In Boyhood, it is Arquette’s character who does all of the work, who suffers the bulk of the drama, and without whom neither Mason or his sister would turn out as well-adjusted as they eventually do.
Indeed, the contrasting scenes where the two kids spend time with their father (Ethan Hawke) on his weekend visits only serves to further underscore this point. With her, at best, they’re dealing with the mundane of everyday; at worst, they’re fleeing the house of a violent alcoholic.
With him, it’s all bowling and ice-cream.
Towards the end of the film this is more or less blatantly stated in the following exchange which takes place towards the film’s end:
There is so much more that could be said about this film: the nostalgic soundtrack, the performances by all central cast members (Coltrane, Linklater, Hawke)…
In fact, the film’s only bum note is a ham-handed scene involving a cafe manager towards the film’s end, who approaches our central family’s table in order to credit his success in life to something Mom told him many years ago when he was just a lowly laborer working on her septic line (not a euphemism.) The scene is badly misjudged and jarring, not least because it is the only such Hollywoodized scene in the film’s entirety.
But really, this is a film which is all about the universal experience of growing up and struggling to find contentment in life – whatever your age.
Boyhood is a fantastic film. Epic yet personal. Devastating yet heartwarming. It will linger in your mind for long after you’ve seen it. It is, in all respects, a unique achievement.