Requiring an impressive long-term commitment from the talent involved, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood captures the passage of time in a wholly unique and memorable fashion. Shot in 39 days over the course of 12 years, the film follows the same cast of characters as they grow up, grow older, and change. This is no mere gimmick — Boyhood also has a compelling and deeply moving narrative.
Six-year-old Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is the son of hard-working, divorced Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and the younger brother of sassy Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). When we first meet them, their charming but perpetually adolescent father (Ethan Hawke) is roaring back into their lives, having been absent for the past year and a half. Gifts in tow, he promises to be a more devoted father. Olivia, who is holding down a full-time job while attending college to get her teaching degree, bounces from man to man in search of the perfect mate who will help complete her idealized view of “family.” Her quest takes her all around Texas, moving from Houston to San Marcos, a small town near Austin, with Mason, Sr., always bringing up the rear to stay near his kids.
Unfortunately, Olivia’s choices are pretty bad ones, as her two subsequent husbands turn out to be abusive alcoholics with control issues. Mason, Sr. starts a new family with a woman who comes from rather religious parents, tamping down his wild streak. Here, Linklater shows how the parents’ decisions affect their children — Olivia’s terrifying second husband threatens their very lives, and Mason, Sr.’s new life precludes the ownership of his beloved muscle car, the GTO he’d promised to give to his son on his sixteenth birthday.
Still, as they move from town to town and school to school, the kids continue to roll with the punches, each forming their own distinct and independent personalities. Surrounded by adults eager to dispense advice — his father included — Mason, Jr., has a pretty good sense of self by the time he’s reached his teenage years, and the bemused expression he frequently wears indicates his general outlook on life — it’s all kind of silly. Samantha changes, too, becoming less of a complainer and more of a responsible big sister.
The passage of time in the film is realistic and subtle — no spinning headlines or leaves flying off of calendars here. Well-chosen songs from different eras within the 12-year time span, occasional references to current events and changes in the appearances of the actors themselves give viewers the cues they need to know where they are. And by setting the action in Texas, where time moves at its own rhythm, Linklater has the luxury to tell the story at his own leisurely pace — but even at 164 minutes, the film never wears out its welcome.
The casting is ideal. Hawke (who starred in Linklater’s similarly time-tripping Before Sunrise series) is great as the erstwhile Mason, Sr., and Arquette brings a lot of heart to Olivia. Their ability to jump back into these characters for a few days each year is something to admire. Also fine is Linklater’s daughter as Samantha. The real find here is Coltrane, whose transformation from typical kid to artistic teen is a marvel to behold. One hopes that in the future Linklater will give us a glimpse of the adult that Mason, Jr., has become.
Thanks to the fine work of cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly, Boyhood looks great and flows seamlessly, despite its more-than-a-decade production schedule. It’s a landmark in many ways, and one that will be analyzed and appreciated by aficionados for generations to come.