Every summer for the past 12 years, Richard Linklater brought together the same small group of actors to shoot a few scenes. Scenes of meals being made, chores being done, bike rides, arguments, classrooms, boxes packed and unpacked, conversations in cars and on porches, moments both mundane and formative, the stuff of life. In the time between those shoots, Linklater released many other films: the big box office crowd-pleaser School of Rock; the perplexing, perhaps unnecessary, Bad News Bears remake; the mind-bending Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly; the second and third installments of the magnificent Before trilogy (the latter of which ranked #2 on Moving Pictures’ Best Films of 2013). By the fall of 2013 Linklater had what he needed to complete his 12 year project, and we now have the privilege of experiencing Boyhood.
There’s potential for gimmickry in the choice to film the same actors for over a decade, but for me, the true benefits of this technique manifest in the dynamics between the actors, the relationships among the characters and the ability of the audience to connect with their experiences. The titular boy is Mason (embodied rather than portrayed by Ellar Coltrane), about 6 years old as the film opens and settling into his freshman dorm room by it’s conclusion almost three hours later. Mason’s parents, already separated when introduced, are played by Linklater mainstay Ethan Hawke and the perfectly cast Patricia Arquette. Mason’s slightly older sister Samantha is actually played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, and one would be hard pressed to cry nepotism given the caliber of her very real, very funny performance. The film is about the life of this family over a 12 year period, seen through the eyes of Mason; no more or less. But that really is quite a lot, and the combination of its superb, naturalistic performances and resistance to narrative expectation allows Boyhood’s layers of both scope and intimacy to really stick the landing.
Early on, the critic in me reminded the viewer in me to pay more attention to the formal aspects of the film, but I soon realized the pointlessness of that approach (not to say that it doesn’t look great). It’s the structure that really adds that extra layer, that density to the material; it’s fun and engaging to orient yourself around the jumps in time, some much more obvious than others. Boyhood is about life as a collection of small moments, but that’s not to say that it doesn’t hold some hefty dramatic weight.
Over the course of the film, Mason’s mother goes through two troublesome marriages (a “parade of drunken assholes” as Mason puts it in one late scene), and many of the passages taking place during the first are especially tense, shrouded by a nagging sense of dread. Later scenes depicting the disfunction of the second marriage (this time to an Iraq War veteran) echo that earlier tone. However, Linklater adds an empathetic depth to the character with one quick shot and some clever blocking, injecting subtle commentary on the challenges facing our returning soldiers.
Despite this familiar domestic storyline, Linklater (as screenwriter) resists the urge to include any climatic father/son altercation or “why weren’t you there for me?” speech. Mason’s previously quoted line about his difficulty with step-fathers is tossed off as a half joke, with an attitude of more resignation and acceptance than bitterness. The reality is that his father was there for the most part, and it’s refreshing to see such an honest portrayal of a mother/father separation that works, as well as the understanding that can develop between parent and child over time.
Boyhood also says much about Linklater’s own background and values with the identity he bestows upon this family. They are artists and thinkers: Mason develops a serious interest in photography and has some success; his mother is a psychology professor, clearly very passionate about her field; his father is a musician who never “made it” but never stops writing and playing, if only for himself and his family. Linklater, a native Texan and son of a Sam Houston State University professor, was born in Houston and later relocated to Austin to start his film career (and co-found the Austin Film Society), and the style and taste of Hawke’s character fits snuggly into the fabric of that neo-Americana haven. In one scene we watch Hawke show his son a favorite Wilco song in the car (also a favorite of mine; “Hate It Here” off the 2007 record Sky Blue Sky), and his music-nerd proclivities bubble over in hilarious fashion. He toggles the volume, adds commentary between lines, sings along, interrupts himself with more commentary (“Nothin’ fancy!”). Having seen this film and the Before trilogy alone, I feel like I know Ethan Hawke personally, and he’s my kind of people. However, Boyhood is written and put together in such a way that one can sympathize with both parents equally, identifying faults and strengths in each; it’s a film as much about their evolution as it is about Mason’s.
But the lynchpin is Coltrane. Without his absolutely stellar work, the whole thing doesn’t jive. You can feel the beats of Coltrane’s real life in Mason’s development; it’s true method acting at it’s finest. He doesn’t so much create a character as he gives his own character to the role, and the result is a performance both effortless and carefully crafted. The film’s final exchange between Mason and a new college friend is a bit ham-fisted in it’s attempts to underscore the central theme; tonally out of place in a work of such subtlety, but easily forgivable once one gets the chance to think back on the enormity of Linklater’s vision. This is the type of work that excites with authenticity and entertains with comprehensiveness, serious art as easily consumable as old home movies.