“We’re all just winging it,” Mason Evans Sr. (Ethan Hawke) says to Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) during a scene in Boyhood (2014) about the two discussing life and growing up at the film’s final third act. After watching three complete viewings, many film documentaries, and reading countless articles about the celebrated twelve-year-in-the-making film Boyhood from director Richard Linklater, this line says much about the actual production as it did about the film’s characters and their development.
Linklater posited the beginnings of Boyhood while having coffee with his longtime friend Hawke many years ago. Little did Hawke know that Linklater was sowing the seeds of what would become one of the unlikeliest and unique films ever made given that very few people (including those at the studio IFC Films) would see any completed footage for over twelve years.
It was an experiment that could have gone wrong at many points during the extremely long production, but many things ended up going right that culminated in a brilliant film made by the greatly cast actors and dedicated crew who believed they making something special. In fact, even Linklater would agree that the film is a very much a collaboration, using real experiences from his past and those of the actors as well to drive the narrative and contribute to the individual characters’ growth.
Boyhood revolves mostly around Mason Jr. and his growing up with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) in Texas to a single mother Olivia, played by the Oscar-winning Patricia Arquette. I use the word “mostly” because it’s also about the family that also includes the ex-husband Mason Sr. who bounces in and out of the children’s lives as any parent that doesn’t have sole custody would. Everyone in the family grows up so to speak through the film’s narrative, but it’s shown through the son’s perspective (especially after the first half).
The typical big events in a boy’s life are generally excluded from the narrative–the first kiss, the first girlfriend, the high school graduation–because they’ve all been done before.
Linklater is more interested in showing those moments that really make up your personal development, what you remember, and what truly effects who you are and who you want to be: the weird conversations you had about elves, childhood friends you grew up with and wonder where they are now, the “Disneyland dad” weekends, and annoying talks from teachers about your potential. Sure, there are the courtesy first days of school (and there are many of them because the family moves a lot), bullying, and breakups but they all add up to what shapes Mason Jr.
My favorite scenes are with Mason Jr. simply existing (for lack of a better word). He rides his swing. He secretly looks at a lingerie catalog with his friend. He plays video games with his step-brother. I enjoyed these scenes because they reminded me of events I went through growing up. There are a lot of similar stories of how this film specifically resonated with other people, which helps prove this film’s power.
I must mention two remarkable developments. First, it is the individual growth of Mason Sr. He starts off as the typical deadbeat dad that tries a bit too hard to be fun and make the most of what little time he has with his children. He really tries. But over time, he grows into a husband and father he should have always been; unfortunately, that development occurred on a time frame that differed from everyone else’s. He realizes this and everyone else does too; fortunately, the family has kept pushing forward in a positive direction without dwelling on what could have been.
Secondly, it is Mason Jr. and Samantha’s relationship with their step-siblings Mindy and Randy (Jamie Howard and Andrew Villarreal, respectively) during Olivia’s second marriage with Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella). Early on, you see the cracks in Olivia and Bill’s relationship, but one thing that stood solid was the children getting along. It would have been too easy to portray an uneasy relationship between these united families, but it wasn’t really the point.
Producer Cathleen Sutherland mentioned during the audio commentary that she was more often than not asked about what happened to those step-siblings (spoiler alert) after Olivia divorced Bill; unfortunately, we never see those two kids again. I still wonder, and a lot of viewers probably still do. This speaks volumes to how relatively complete these characters were and how much this film connected with people long after the end credits rolled.
(As an aside, many crew members chanted “manhood, manhood” after the final shoot to promote the idea of a possible sequel to suggest they wanted to know what is in store for Mason Jr. and also keep participating in making a film that had already consumed twelve years of their lives as well.)
Right after Boyhood‘s release, there were rumors that Linklater was preparing a future home video release via the Criterion Collection. This rumor sounded somewhat likely given Criterion Collection re-releases of Linklater’s earlier works Slacker (1991) and Dazed and Confused (1993).
Fortunately, the rumors were true, and The Criterion Collection offers separate two-disc Blu-ray and DVD collections. This particular Blu-ray review had a Linklater-supervised 2K digital transfer of the film’s 1:85:1 aspect ratio from the original 35mm film negatives, which looks amazing with subdued colors to somewhat mimic the feeling of personal memories.
Linklater was adamant about filming on 33mm film because of its consistency and stability over the twelve years they would be filming. Digital technologies changed significantly over those twelve years and rather than fight over which cameras to use, he simply stuck with film; however, even film photography had its troubles since Kodak kept discontinuing certain film stock over those years.
Audio was remastered with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio that contain crisp dialogue and a smooth soundtrack. Even scenes with Mason Jr. mumbling (yes, kids mumble when they’re reluctant to talk) are audible that help provide clarity during some of the more intimate scenes.
There are seven special features on this new set. First is a new audio commentary featuring Linklater, Sutherland, and eight other members of the cast and crew that is actually quite entertainment and informative. There is definitively overlap in what is discussed on the commentary and on the other special features, but the discussion nonetheless feels organic and quite emotional as the cast and crew talk about what it was like making a movie for twelve years. They grew up as much as the characters on screen. It is a very recommended listen over the 165-minute runtime.
Other special features include:
- Twelve Years — An hour-long documentary on the production, including interviews and behind-the-scenes footage shot over the twelve years of the actual production. It’s an interesting look that captures how the cast and crew feel and think about the film over the twelve years.
- Memories of the Present — Producer John Pierson moderates an hour-long post-film release discussion with Linklater, Coltrane, and Arquette about making the film, the film itself and what it meant to them, especially during the long awards-season tour and the similar hangover of its finale.
- Always Now — A half-hour post-film conversation between Coltrane and Hawke about the film, including what they personally contributed and how their scenes reflected where they were in at the point of their lives.
- Time of Your Life – Coltrane narrates a video essay from Critic Michael Koresky about how the concept of time is used throughout Linklater’s films. Please don’t watch if you’re unfamiliar with Linklater’s previous films (like Slacker and Dazed and Confused) as their plots and themes are discussed.
- Through the Years — The most worthwhile special feature is series of personal thoughts by Linklater, Arquette, Hawke, Coltrane, Sutherland narrated against a collection of photographs made by Matt Lankes during the film’s production.
There is also an essay by novelist Jonathan Lethem included in the booklet.