To tell the fictional story of a boy growing up in Texas, Richard Linklater filmed a young actor (Ellar Coltrane) for a few days each year for 12 years. “Boyhood” is extraordinary because of that, but not only because of it.
The film takes the audience on a visceral trip back to childhood partly because it shows a real child mature on screen. What completes the effect, though, is masterful writing and directing, by Linklater, and editing, by Sandra Adair. Without those elements, the dozen years would amount to an ambitious storytelling device, but little else.
In between shoots, Linklater (the “Before” series, including last year’s “Before Midnight”) obviously carefully considered what he would do the next year. Such care shows in “Boyhood,” which illuminates a universal experience through the specific story of Mason (Coltrane), a quiet boy with divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and an extroverted big sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter).
“Boyhood” fully immerses despite a 2-hour, 44-minute run time and what would seem like an inherently choppy storytelling approach. “Boyhood” does not stutter; it flows and stuns in its ability to maintain a child’s-eye view even as that child grows and changes, aging from primary school to freshman year in college.
This kid’s-eye view is not actual camera perspective but a matter of emphasis. Linklater gives the same weight to an unwanted haircut that he does to scenes of family confrontation.
Mason’s hard-line stepfather orders a barber to buzz off the 9-year-old’s long locks. The kid responds by crawling into bed and staying there, pretending he’s sick to avoid going to school. Coltrane looks depressed and befuddled as Mason recognizes that he lacks agency over even his own hair.
At 9, Mason does not yet know life will bring heartaches greater than an involuntary buzz cut.
Linklater found a great collaborator in Coltrane. The young actor exudes a curiosity that serves the movie well when Mason is 6 and 16. Mason starts as observer of his family, then becomes a more active observer of all that surrounds him, as a talented photographer and shade-tree philosopher who asks the big questions about life.
He might always have been a serious thinker. He just wasn’t in charge earlier, and therefore not in full possession of his voice.
“Boyhood” reminds us that our lives as children really are our parents’ lives, with us as supporting players. Linklater does not present this as good or bad, but as the fact it is.
For instance, Mason’s sister (Lorelei Linklater’s growth as an actress and into a quieter self-possession over the 12 years is a marvel of its own) loudly protests when their mother, Olivia, announces near film’s start that they are moving to another city. The sister holds the same amount of sway as the quieter Mason. None.
Olivia tells them she is going to college, so she can get a better job, and as a single mother, better support them. The children hear “moving away,” then white noise.
Linklater highlights the kids’ lack of self-determination while treating their loving, flawed parents with the utmost generosity. Father Mason Sr. is a fledgling musician not around much at film’s start. When he comes around, he gets to be the fun guy who offers gifts and excursions, while Olivia handles the boring stuff like school supplies and daily meals.
As the parents move outside to argue about the father’s longtime absence, little Mason and his sister watch from the window. Distracted by their own drama, the parents do not see how that exchange is informing the children’s outlook on the world and relationships.
Mason Sr. matures in his own way as “Boyhood” progresses. Hawke gives him a yearning – for his lost marriage, for the children he only sees on weekends – that takes slightly different shape as the years pass.
Aware he is not the primary parent, Mason Sr. carves out niches for himself. He is the children’s cultural and political adviser, instructing his son on the sonic sophistication of the band Wilco and taking the kids with him to urge neighbors to plant Barack Obama signs in their yards during Obama’s first presidential campaign.
That election is one of the larger world events touched on in “real time” during the “Boyhood” shoot. Part of the joy of the film is how its period details – like a turquoise iMac – are not the result of a clever production designer but of a film being shot over 12 years.
Olivia is arty and fun, too – thus her previous attraction to Mason Sr. But someone has to provide stability. Arquette brings a wonderful mix of love and crankiness to Olivia, sometimes looking exhausted from caring for two children. When Olivia takes up with her college professor, and eventually marries him, it seems partly out of attraction and partly because she wants someone to share the load.
Such choices are human, and common. So is discussing family finances, which Olivia does in “Boyhood” – a trait both tacky and realistic. Money usually arises as an on-screen topic in the context of a bank heist or corporate merger. But Olivia talks about being “house poor,” a term heard in life but not in movies.
Olivia is the kind of TMI mom no teenager wants but who equips her kids for real life better than stoic martyrs or cheerleaders.
But “Boyhood” also underscores an awful truth: No amount of frankness or tough or lax love or Wilco analysis fully can control a child’s behavior. Coltrane gives Mason a lazy quality during adolescence (gives him? Or did Coltrane have it at the time? It’s the beauty and mystery of “Boyhood”) that made me want to tell him to stand up straight and move faster.
Because I felt like I knew him at this point. That’s the key difference between “Boyhood” and other films. Most films capture a moment. “Boyhood” encompasses a whole life chapter.
And just a chapter, which is an important distinction. “Boyhood” seems so authentic because it never takes Mason beyond what he is capable of feeling and doing at the ages the story covers. There’s a highly emotional scene, late in the movie, that would pay off more were Mason to react differently. But he is not equipped.
Some films are great because they transport or instruct. Others, like “Boyhood,” are great because they confirm what you already know, but that you cannot articulate as well as Linklater can on a big screen. Because memories are faulty, and home videos and Facebook posts are unreliable, in that they carry happiness agendas.
I wish I knew exactly how Linklater made a film shot over 12 years flow so well and evoke the experience of being a child so completely. Or how he cut to the quick of romantic relationships in his “Before” trilogy.
But I don’t, because there’s movie magic involved. Not trickery, but great craft, combined with unusual empathy, and in “Boyhood’s” case, tremendous patience.