I’ve said in the past that one good strong gimmick is all that a film really needs. It would be an understatement to say that today’s movie is a fine case in point. In fact, I don’t think it would be hyperbole to say that this particular gimmick is one for the history books.
Boyhood has a premise that’s simple enough: It’s a coming-of-age story that follows a young boy from age 6 to age 18. The gimmick? It was actually shot over twelve years. Writer/director Richard Linklater made the film in short bursts between projects, wrangling together the same cast of actors to play the same characters in real time. This baffles me. I’ve heard of films spending a decade in development, and that’s generally not a good sign, but for a film to spend over a decade in production? And it actually got completed and released? Well, goddamn.
Of course, the film’s unorthodox production leads to a few inherent drawbacks. To start with, the movie is two hours and 45 minutes long, and I could feel those seconds ticking by toward the end. It also means a plot that tends to wander aimlessly, though that serves to mimic the ongoing directionless lives of the characters. Not only are these characters presented without any age makeup or recasting, but they’re also — without exception — presented with some of the best acting I’ve seen in the past decade. All of this makes for authentic characters who are so instantly relatable and sympathetic that their happiness and heartbreaks are thoroughly engrossing.
I’ve seen a lot of critics struggle to write about this movie (I’m no exception, I’ll admit), because this movie is so evocative in so many personal ways. The film affected me as an ’80s kid who grew up with a lot of the same stuff that Mason (our protagonist, played by Ellar Coltrane) did, but the film is about so much more than him. Mason’s mother (Olivia, played by Patricia Arquette) has just as much screen time as Mason does, and the film puts a lot of screen time toward her various struggles as a single mother. In this way, the film isn’t just about growing up in the 21st century, but also about raising a child in the 21st century. Every single one of us falls into either (or both) of those categories, or we know someone else who is. This means that depending on your age bracket, what kind of childhood you had, and what your family history is like (and your taste in movies, of course), this film is going to hit you hard in a way that is entirely unique to you. In fact, I’d wager that if I were to see this film again in twenty years, it would affect me in such a profoundly different way that it would be like seeing a completely different film.
The trick is that Linklater doesn’t focus on typical “coming of age” cliches like bullies, social cliques, crushes, rivalries, etc. He touches on all of those, don’t get me wrong, but that’s not where his main target is. No, everything in this film comes back to the central question of what kind of man this kid will grow into. It’s a universal question that every parent (and every kid, whether they know it or not) has to face, and it works beautifully in this film because we’re literally watching this kid grow before our eyes. We know that we’ll see him as an adult before the film is through, so the film seems to encourage us to keep an eye on anything that could potentially affect Mason further down the line.
This brings me back to the “rambling plot,” which is only a half-true description. As the film progresses, the film sets up certain events that potentially unfold into something greater. When one character turns into an alcoholic, for example, we’re led to wonder how that problem will play out and how its resolution will affect other events in turn. Love interests are introduced, and it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll still be around after the next time jump.
My favorite examples are Mason’s parents. We see early on that Olivia is the responsible single mother who sacrifices her social life for an education, a better career, being a responsible mother, etc. Meanwhile, Mason’s father (Mason Sr., played by Ethan Hawke) is an erstwhile musician who can’t seem to hold down a job. When the film starts out, we’re led to wonder which parent Mason will eventually take after. But as the film continues and both parents’ lives are taken in completely new directions, that question becomes much more complex.
That said, there’s a lot of stuff that happens in between the time jumps, and there’s virtually nothing to signal when a jump happens. The music might change to a pop song that was popular a year later, and maybe some of the characters will be dressed differently, but that’s it. Granted, this is nicely illustrative of how youth is fleeting and kids grow up before you know it. Also, the film is generally quite good about finding ways to bring us up to speed in a way that feels natural. Even so, there are a few pivotal moments in between the scenes that might have been nice to see. Though I guess that would have extended the running time even further, so never mind.
At its heart and core, the movie is about comparing/contrasting childhood with adulthood. It’s about how adults are affected by being parents, and how children are affected by the adults around them. It’s about that crucial moment when kids realize that adults are only mortals who don’t have their futures planned out any more than their children do. It’s about realizing that growing up is a continuous process that doesn’t simply end at eighteen.
The film does call attention to two essential checkpoints in the process of growing up, but they’re nothing like graduating high school, losing virginity, turning 18 or whatever else have you. Those matters are all addressed, of course, but the film seems to argue that becoming a true adult doesn’t depend on anything so trivial or arbitrary. No, the dialogue puts a much greater emphasis on accepting responsibility. Mason goes through the entire film as a daydreamer and a kid who gets into trouble, but he’s told with increasing frequency by all manner of characters that he has to start acting like a responsible and hard-working adult.
This brings me to the second huge landmark: The loss of innocence. And no, I’m not just talking about sex. I’m talking about the moment when Mason starts developing a healthy skepticism for the world that he’s inheriting. There’s a point in his high school years when Mason is railing against the NSA and employers reducing their minimum-wage workers to zombies. This stands in stark contrast to grade-school Mason, who couldn’t care less about the Iraq War or who he would vote for if given the chance.
(Side note: I think it bears mentioning that this film began shooting in the summer of 2002, when the lead character was only six. As such, I think we can safely assume that he wouldn’t remember a time before 9/11. That’s a crucial distinction, I think you’ll agree.)
I really can’t lay enough praise onto the actors in this picture. Ellar Coltrane is a phenomenal young actor who effortlessly holds the screen through Mason’s energetic youth to his rebellious teen years. Lorelei Linklater (the director’s own daughter) is similarly fantastic as Mason’s older sister. Though Samantha may not technically be the protagonist, she’s still the focus of enough scenes that the film can comment on growing up as a young girl, as Mason depicts life as a growing boy. Also, because Samantha is the older sibling, Mason learns a lot of huge life lessons through her. A great example comes when Samantha picks up a (sorta-)boyfriend, prompting Mason Sr. to give his daughter the Big Talk while his son is there to listen in.
This brings me to Ethan Hawke, who turns in a surprisingly poignant performance as a ne’er-do-well who’s trying to be a good father. It also helps that the character has a lovely arc full of delightful surprises, and Hawke is marvelous at showing the character’s growth. And as for Patricia Arquette, good fucking god. She brings so much beauty and grace to this character, even as she’s buckling under the emotional stress of providing for two children, advancing her career, and dealing with a marriage on the brink of collapse, often all at the same time. Such a wonderful job playing such a strong woman.
If Boyhood was just a film that was shot in real time over twelve years, there would be no way to top that kind of ambition or effort. But what really makes this film a masterpiece is in how all that effort yielded such powerfully authentic characters, intensely relatable scenarios, and layers upon layers of heartfelt themes expressed in poignantly honest ways. This film is so painfully evocative that I doubt a single person could watch this without recalling the moments that came to define them as adults, or those moments and attitudes that define how they (will) raise their children.
It sucks that the 165-minute runtime may drive some viewers away, because this is a film that demands to be seen. I honestly try to avoid hyperbole or excessive praise in my reviews, but I have no problem in saying that Boyhood will likely be the coming-of-age film by which all future coming-of-age films will be measured. It is easily one of the best films I’ve seen in the past decade. I don’t care what it takes to see a movie in such limited release, I can promise that your time and money will be well spent.