In the hands of a lesser filmmaker, a film like Boyhood could have very easily played like a cheap gimmick. A narrative chronicling twelve years of an average boy's life could have played as nothing more than a flash in the pan novelty designed solely to showcase a Director's technical ambition. Thankfully though, in the hands of Richard Linklater, it has elevated to something far more unique and noteworthy.
The story follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his broken family from the Summer of 2002 onwards. Upon first introduction to Mason, it is abundantly clear that he is an observant, and introspective type. He frequently quarrels with his perky and proudly outspoken elder sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). While their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggles to hold the fort down. Meanwhile, their estranged father, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), is limited to Weekend Visitation. The story unravels over the course of 12 years through the eyes of Mason, as he observes his entire family. We see how each of them grows, witnessing the mistakes they make and the personal victories for which they achieve along the way.
Granted, the idea of watching a kid grow from childhood to adulthood is not necessarily a new concept for cinema. The Harry Potter franchise already achieved something similar over the course of Eight separate films. Ironically enough, the Potter phenomenon is directly referenced as being a high point of Mason and Samantha's childhood. But to show it in the course of one film spanned over three hours is remarkable.
Linklater is no stranger to the concept of time in narrative. Dazed and Confused was set over the period of a single day while his "Before" trilogy took it to the next level by highlighting three single days told over the course of 30 years. Making Boyhood the logical next step in experimentation. Linklater wisely ditches the routine three act structure and instead opts for the narrative to float simply with his characters. Resulting in a film compiled of drifting moments.
Everything feels organic to the moment at hand. The characters grow naturally with their time and environment. Wisely, the passage of time is never once spelt out for the audience. The years tick over and Linklater never once throws a title card on screen informing us of such facts. Instead, he cleverly evokes the passage of time through the use of sight and sound. Whether it be musical cues relevant to the current year or even the short abridged evolution of video games that Mason lives through. It's these little touches that help to inform the audience of place and time.
As a single mother, Olivia struggles to do the right thing by her children while affording herself the time to fulfil her aspirations. Mason Sr, on the other hand, is far more floaty, lacking the proper ambition to become an adult. Despite Mason and Samantha's deep seeded hopes, it is made abundantly clear that there is no real chance of reconciliation for the family.
Olivia makes a conscientious decision to pack up the kids and move to Houston, where she can enroll in college and obtain a teaching degree. Here, she meets, falls in love, and remarries. Giving Mason and Samantha a new family. Imperatively speaking, this romance is a doomed one, as her new husband grows increasingly hostile. Revealing Olivia's tendency to fall for the wrong man. Despite her wealth of intelligence, she has a knack for making one wrong choice after another when it comes to the men in her life. None the less, these mistakes help to make her stronger along the path of life.
No character goes unchanged over the course of 12 years. Even if there is no clear narrative trajectory, each of the characters are none the less fully realized in their individual journeys. Ethan Hawke is a consistent joy to watch as Mason's deep seeded politically left-winged father. Upon first introduction, despite being a loving and attentive father to his children, it is all too abundantly clear that he lacks the maturity that comes with adulthood as he fleets through life with uncertainty. Eventually, Mason Sr overturns expectations and also finds a measure of redemption as he grows wiser with age. Discovering a true kindred ship with his son as they bond over similar taste in music and similar world views. Mason's sister Samantha, played with tremendous gusto by Linklater's real life daughter Loreli, also gets a fully realised character arc of her own. One could even go as far as to say that she is a true show stealer (at least in the early goings) and that the movie could have easily focused on her and still would have been a terrific success.
The true star of the show is Mason himself, played terrifically by Ellar Coltrane. It’s less of a performance and more so a natural embodiment of a character. As life takes the family from one place to another, Mason endures. At the age of 7, he bickers with his sister. At the age of 10, he eagerly awaits the midnight release of the next Harry Potter book. At the age of 12, he plays rounds of Halo Multiplayer with his friends. At the age of 14, he has his first beer with the elder kids in the neighbourhood. At the age of 17, he laments the rise of Facebook to his then Facebook obsessed Girlfriend leading into an amusing conversation that instantly evokes memories of Slacker.
Funnily enough, as the film veers into his teenage years, the dramatic beats give way to a more mundane and relaxed attitude. The early dramatic events of Mason’s life simply help to form who Mason becomes as an adult. Having seen such toxic relationships up close and personal, it makes Mason strive to be a better person. But those dramatic beats will not dominate his life either.
Perhaps there is an argument that the film is slightly too long and becomes a little too meandering at points as it does admittedly lose a little momentum come the midpoint. But the result is utterly fascinating to behold none the less. Beautifully shot by Lee Daniel, the film is a love note to rural America, most notably Austin Texas.
It is a true testament to the actors and crew involved that they have managed to achieve a proper unity of tone despite the unpredictable evolving nature of the times thrown before them. The film is timeless in subject matter, yet relevant in regards to the current moment. In the span of three hours, Richard Linklater perfectly captures the very essence of transitioning from childhood to adulthood. Not only is it a truly stunning technical achievement, but it is also a sincere, heartfelt and soulful portrait of ones coming-of-age. Proving once again why Richard Linklater is one of the finest filmmakers working in America today.