For the longest time people going onto the IMDB page of director Richard Linklater would see a rather title sitting in the “in production” section of his filmography. For the longest time there was this odd movie called “Untitled 12-Year Project” sitting there with a release date that was way off in the future. Those who followed film news closely knew exactly what this was: an ambitious project that the director had been filming little by little for over a decade starting when his star protagonist was only seven years old and finally finishing when he was in his late teens. To call this a risky move would probably be an understatement. There were any number of things that could have happened over the course of the twelve year filming that could have derailed all the work he’d done, and even barring a complete disaster, he easily could have found himself in a tricky situation where he no longer liked what he’d filmed years earlier and reshoots would have been out of the question. Against all odds, it’s finally been twelve years and the film seems to have come together without a hitch and as hard as it is to believe for those of us who’ve been following it all this time, it’s finally out in theaters.
Boyhood starts in roughly 2002 when its protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), is about seven or eight years old. As the film starts he’s living in a small suburban house with his single mother named Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and he’s occasionally visited by his biological father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). The film proceeds to follow this character as his family moves from place to place and situation to situation and as he goes through the various experiences that go into a modern American adolescence.
As one would surmise from the synopsis and the means by which the film was produced, this isn’t exactly a film with a traditional three act structure. Rather it’s a somewhat episodic exploration of a mostly ordinary life. Terrence Malick did something somewhat similar with his 2011 film The Tree of Life, but that movie looked at childhood in a much more grandiose and ethereal way while Boyhood seeks to be relatable and down to earth. This goes double if, like me, you happen to be of more or less the same generation as the film’s protagonist. I’m about seven or eight years older than Mason, but it was still a trip to finally see a film that finally shows how playing “Oregon Trail II” on an iMac G3 at school and pwning your friend at “Halo” can be an important part of childhood. As the film goes on it is not only a chronicle of its central family but also of the American experience over the course of the 2000s. We see the kids talking about the Iraq war with their father and campaigning for Barrack Obama, and the film also does a great job of using popular music as a means of marking time as it goes on.
I’m not exactly sure what made Richard Linklater chose Ellar Coltrane to be the star of his project, but the choice seems to have worked out really well. I wouldn’t necessarily say that Coltrane evolves into the greatest actor I’ve seen over the course of the film, and I’m not sure what he’d be like in other roles, but it’s definitely interesting to watch him grow (literally and figuratively) into someone completely different from the little kid we see lying on the grass looking at the clouds as the film opens. And while the film is called Boyhood and is mostly shown from Mason’s perspective, the rest of his family is almost as important to the film and are just as interesting to see grow and evolve. Linklater cast his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, as Mason’s sister and she is certainly an important and interesting character especially in the earlier portions of the film. It’s also interesting to see Mason’s mother grow from being a befuddled single mother to being a confident and independent intellectual. You don’t necessarily see every step of her arc, in part because Mason is left in the dark about a lot of her personal life when he’s younger, but it’s definitely there. Another character with a full arc is Mason’s biological father, played by long-time Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke, who goes from being an aimless young hotshot to being a middle aged man who’s embraced responsibility.
Richard Linklater has never been a particularly distinctive visual stylist, but he’s always held his own when working with down to earth material. His visuals here are not showy, but they are well chosen and bring the film to life through a variety of subtle decisions. In general this is a movie that plays to all his strengths, particularly his ability to capture incredibly believable and relatable moments of human interaction. There are conversations between the children here that I remember almost verbatim in my own childhood. But Linklater does not make the mistake of making this kid’s childhood universal to the point of cliché. His relationship to his parents in particular is a lot less antagonistic than it is in most coming of age movies, and is in many ways rather refreshing. Linklater also doesn’t feel too pressured to manufacture drama in the character’s life. There is one episode when Mason is about nine or ten which is somewhat out of the ordinary and could have been a movie unto itself, but the movie never feels too much of a need to fill his later years with similar material. It’s like the movie knows that something like that is unlikely to happen to someone more than once during their childhood and for better or worse decides not to repeat it.
All that said I do think the movie does lose steam just a little during its second half. That’s partly because Linklater’s style seems a lot more energetic and distinctive while he’s filming Mason as a child than when he’s filming him as a teenager. Teenagers are of course a pretentious lot and the film accurately depicts Mason as being a little bit insufferable during those years, and I guess watching a child run around and play is always going to be a little more inherently cinematic than watching a teenager argue with his girlfriend. Still, the film as a whole is a pretty amazing accomplishment. Filming the mundane realities of life and making them this interesting is a lot harder than it looks and Linklater has once again proven to be the master at doing just that, and it’s really good to know that he had this up his sleeve all those years when he was making some questionable projects like Fast Food Nation and The Bad News Bears. The film’s “passage of time” nature does invite comparisons to his “Before” series, and I don’t think I’m prepared to call this a greater accomplishment than those three masterpieces, but it’s definitely the cinematic event of the summer and one that no one should miss.
**** out of Four