Overview: Filmed over a groundbreaking twelve years, Boyhood is the story of a young boy growing up. IFC; 2014; Rated R; 164 minutes
What Is This?: Boyhood garnered instant buzz when director Richard Linklater (Dazed and Confused) divulged he had been working on a film project over a decade. The movie warrants some explanation. Filmed in 39 days over 12 years with the same cast, Boyhood is an unprecedented feat in film history. In its essence, it’s simply a story that chronicles Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood, age 6 to 18 and “unfolds like a memory” with a powerful, documentary-like feel. Boyhood will undoubtedly draw its share of comparisons to Linklater’s own Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, 1995; Before Sunset 2004; Before Midnight 2013) and the Up series, but no other work can stand in direct comparison. Despite the attention to the shooting process, it is only a portion of what makes the film feel miraculous.
A project so grand is not without its problems. Filming over such an expansive period of time and opting out of swapping child actor for slightly older child actor, Linklater lends himself to potential disaster. Counting on two children to commit to an artistic endeavor longer than their collective years on the planet is risky. What makes it a masterpiece is not the style, but Linklater’s blending of the technical and the artistic—from the decision to shoot in 35mm to the evolution of the story, allowing the actors to guide the characters’ arcs and create improvisational-sounding dialogue. Linklater clearly understands language, the human condition, and has a penchant for seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary; he staunchly avoids sentimentality at each turn.
Time: The deliberate decision to keep Boyhood in sequential order is perhaps one of its greatest stylistic strengths. One day flows into the next without any indication of passing years. The episodic slices of time take on a cumulative power. A year passes between each episode, and we find our footing in time through a song, a haircut, or a news broadcast. The items that fill his world aren’t chosen for retrospective significance or the craving for some recent nostalgia—they are simply contemporary for the time, a reminder that everything was once set in the present. Through long, low shots, we see Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) world as it happens to him. He’s a six-year-old child first coming online, developing consciousness, formulating his earliest memories. He is reacting to his external world comprised mostly by his sister Sam (Lorelai Linklater) and his parents. The round-faced, floppy-haired boy grows up slowly and then all at once in a series of cohesive snapshots. In the nearly three hour run time, the ephemeral nature of childhood is shown in an elegantly simple narrative.
One Story, Many Little Pieces: At every turn, Linklater spares us from the cheap payoffs that commonly plague coming-of-age stories. No voiceover narration chimes in to spell things out for us. No text rolls over the screen to indicate dates or ages. There is no great inciting moment; he combats our expectations at each turn, and if you’re waiting for something movie-worthy to go down, it simply won’t. Linklater places equal stock in the banal, inconsequential events as he does the pivotal, transformative; the in-between moments, the forgettable minutiae prove defining pieces folding into the fabric of a young man. In a stand-out moment, Mason vividly recounts a conversation with his father—one that his father has long forgotten—a moment painfully and universally understood. It’s a film about nothing and everything all at once, which is his greatest nod to childhood. When you’re a kid, everything is monumentally, indistinguishably, inarguably important.
Motherhood, Fatherhood: Boyhood is arguably as much about adulthood as it is about adolescence. Young, single mom, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) makes a slew of colossal mistakes with honorable intentions, and though she may be intelligent (much like the children’s father) her intellect is leaps and bounds beyond her emotional maturity. Mason is privy to glimpses of her struggle to push past the pull of narcissistic youth and the slew of ever-selfish men in her life. Our introduction to her love life is through a screeched, “I was somebody’s daughter, and then I was somebody’s fucking mother,” a sentiment that undoubtedly resonates with many. Her love for her children is undeniable, and her sacrifices for them ultimately redeem her errors. When she snaps that she’s being taken for granted by her children, the snap reverberates through the audience, too. The expectations placed on her are much heavier than that of any other adult in Mason’s world. Linklater generously grants a Hollywood rarity: a fully developed female character, realized in a deft and nuanced performance by Arquette.
Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), the impenitent, once absentee, weekend-fun, biological dad is allowed an arc seemingly unjustifiable next to his ex-wife’s. His evolution is astonishing and his mistakes seem to bear little consequence ultimately, as his eventual shift into adulthood nearly coincides with his son’s. The man who identifies himself as the lesser of Olivia’s relationship evils draws support from his teen son. The contrast between the realities of single motherhood and single fatherhood are vast. Her selfishness is catastrophic; his is inconvenient. But, despite this, at each turn, we’re reminded that this is Mason’s story, and his parents are little more than his ever-evolving perception of them.
No Film Before: Boyhood is undeniably a cinematic rarity. Investing in one of the most arduous yet compelling methods of filmmaking, Linklater creates a unique, individualized story that manages to be singularly powerful and universally compelling at once. Beyond the astonishing logistics behind the making of the film is a narrative so casually, organically intimate, it verges on unnerving. And when Arquette cries, head in hands, “I just thought there would be more,” the collective sigh echoes. It leaves an indelible impression, hitting on something true, real, and indefinable. Boyhood falls in the realm of instant classic—a modern masterpiece.