Director Richard Linklater’s film Boyhood can be viewed as either an incredible piece of cinema or an extraordinary movie gimmick. Those who have dismissed the film in various degrees no doubt feel that there is something off about a director who will devote 12 years of his life and career to one project. Then there are others, like myself, who find that this film is an indelible portrait of a child – the actor (Ellar Coltrane) and the character (Mason) whom he portrays. In capturing the essence of one “boyhood” Linklater has done something more indelible – he has caught up the essence of life for all of us who have gone through growing up and have experienced loss, love, and awareness.
The story starts simply enough with Mason lying on the grass and staring up at the clouds in the sky. He is waiting for his mother who is inside the school talking with his teacher. At this point Mason is five and we learn that he has already experienced the breakup of his family unit – Mom (Patricia Arquette) and Dad (Ethan Hawke) are divorced, with Mom struggling to make ends meet. Linklater hooks us with this moment, getting us to feel the wonder Mason has as he looks at the bigger world, and then giving us the perspective of the world looking down on the tiny boy whom we will watch grow into a man.
The fact that Linklater could lock up Arquette and Hawke (both are amazing in these roles) for the long haul says something about his persuasive powers as much as it does about their artistic sensibilities to commit such a project. They provide the gravitas to not only take the film seriously but to keep watching. While it is so intriguing to see Mason grow, there is also a tremendous change in both Arquette and Hawke as they grow older before our eyes. It is one thing to have the cinematic “aging” process that has been used over the years in films (I keep thinking of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane), but to have actors actually aging and allowing that process to be filmed is cinematic gold.
Mason goes through all the things that boys have to go through and then some. Along for the ride is his sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) as Mom bounces from place to place. Determined to better herself, Mom goes back to school and starts a relationship with a professor (Marco Perella) whom she admires. Soon they are married but as years go by his closet alcoholism takes its toll on the family. One of the most grueling scenes in the film is when he forces Mason to have a haircut. The image of this boy losing his long locks is terrifying; thanks to Coltrane’s performance we see the pain and fear etched in his face.
Mom eventually gets out of that relationship after he starts hitting her, and the narrative takes us through the years as she finally gets her degree, becomes a professor herself, and then marries Jim (Charlie Sexton), one of her students who just came back from Iraq. Unfortunately, it turns out Jim is also an alcoholic, and one of the things Linklater’s script does is show that Mom can make very bad choices even though she is still a loving mother.
During the children’s lives, Dad pops in and out of the picture. First he’s working in Alaska, and then he decides to come back to Texas in order to be closer to them. There is all the authentic drama of the pull and take of two parents who long ago decided that they didn’t love each other anymore but love their kids no matter what. Scenes between Arquette and Hawke are achingly authentic – you firmly believe they are a real but fractured couple who wish they could have worked things out but now must go about living separate lives.
As Mason and Samantha grow older, it’s intriguing to watch them actually morph into adolescents and then young adults. There are braces, zits, and changes in features that we who are parents will watch with wonder and a touch of fear as we see it happening in our kids. Linklater allows everything to be witnessed in order for us to not only confirm his cinematic prowess but to capture our hearts as we can do nothing but stay with the story for every one of its achingly lovely 165 minutes.
Throughout the film there are traces of the time and place seen on TV screens or in actions of the characters. One of the funniest and telling sequences involves Dad taking the kids around to put Obama signs on people’s lawns. The feedback of some of the people who don’t want Obama signs on their lawns is revealing (and shows even the current polarization in red and blue America). When Dad steals a McCain sign from a lawn and throws it in his car trunk, he justifies this to the kids by saying he’s doing it for a good cause.
The story ends with Mason grown up and heading off to college. With Samantha already gone and Mason packing his things, Mom gets super emotional and, in a scene that I believe had to lock in her Oscar nomination, she dumps all of her years of angst and sadness onto her son. There is something so pathetic as she catches us up in her summation of a life lived and in many ways failed, and yet there is also an inherent dignity – which Arquette has infused in this character in every scene – and we want to cry with her as Mason leaves, most certainly off to his own life that he once imagined as he stared up at those clouds so long ago.
Boyhood is an exquisite piece of cinema history for what it achieves as a unique movie making accomplishment. If you think it is a gimmick to film the same people over twelve years in the same story, you are missing the whole point. The achievement is a master story teller getting all aspects of the narrative right, and by keeping the same actors as the same characters and allowing them to age gracefully and otherwise, we learn life’s greatest lesson – life is more about the moments than it is about the momentum.
Linklater has given us a true cinematic gem in Boyhood, and if you open yourself up to its world, you are in for a treat. Enjoy it for all it’s worth because you will probably never see the likes of it again.
Photo credits: hollywoodreporter.com, mongrelmedia.com, wearemoviegeeks.com, observer.com, the guardian.com[amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00MEQUNIW ]