Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, released in 2014, quickly drew notice for the fact that filming began back in 2002. Over the course of 12 years, Linklater gathered together the same cast and crew every year to film a new short episode in the life of its young central character (the movie was at one point to be titled 12 Years, until a certain Best Picture winner scuttled that idea). As the story unfolds, we witness the physical and emotional growth of the cast in an unprecedented cinematic achievement. The film features Ellar Coltrane as the main boy, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) as his older sister, Ethan Hawke as his dad, and Patricia Arquette as his mom in the role that won her an Oscar.
The film begins when Mason Evans is six years old and living in small-town Texas with his older sister Samantha and his mother Olivia, who’s divorced from their father, Mason, Sr. It seems there’s a lot of friction between Olivia and her new boyfriend over her being a single mom, and due to financial hardship, she soon moves with the kids to Houston so that she can finish her degree and get a better paying job.
The next year, the kids visit with their father, who’s back in Texas after spending time in Alaska in an (unsuccessful) attempt to become a musician. Meanwhile, Mason sees Olivia flirt with her professor (Marco Perella), and before we know it, the two are married. Joining his children with hers, the new family dynamic soon becomes toxic as he slips into alcoholism and abuse. After several episodes of physical violence, Olivia escapes with Mason and Sam and moves in with a friend.
Mason Sr. bonds further with his two kids as they age into their preteen years. He discusses all sorts of things with them, including dating, sports, sex, politics, and pop culture (both Masons are in agreement that there will never be another Star Wars film). Samantha spends less time with her father as she grows up and becomes her own person, but he still comes around to go on camping trips with Mason.
Mason enters his teenage years and calmly rebels. He drinks a little and smokes a little weed, but is still honest and caring towards his parents. His photography teacher tells him to take school seriously, because in spite of his lack of motivation, he does have talent.
Mason soon gets a new younger brother when his dad gets remarried to a woman from a conservative Christian upbringing. Meanwhile, the third time turns out not to be the charm for Mason’s mom, whose new husband also becomes an abusive, alcoholic jerk.
Finally, we see Mason graduate from high school and make plans to go away to college in Alpine, Texas. And while this leaves his mother alone and depressed, he finally begins to feel like he can find people to relate to outside of his family.
Boyhood is a remarkable time capsule for those growing up in or reaching adulthood during the same time period as Mason. Many will recognize the popular toys, songs, films, and other events of 2002-2014 that are depicted in the film. Linklater seems to have had a knack for picking the pop culture fads and trendy gadgets that would most quickly date each segment: Harry Potter, the Game Boy Advance, candy-coated iMacs, flip phones, Tamagotchis, and High School Musical all get referenced, along with the songs of Britney Spears and trendy stuffed owls.
While these things are all fun to see, the real beauty of this film is its emotional impact. Each scene is a fragment in a boy’s life, yet many of these shards of truth will have deep resonance with viewers. Watching this film, one can’t help but recall having difficulties with a stepparent or a spouse, or how it felt to leave behind your parent(s) while packing for college, or having to say goodbye to your child. Each scene is perfectly crafted as a slice of life, and while some may feel disappointed that there’s no strong overriding plot or theme, that’s really not the point of the film. The movie is more like stopping by every so often to get a glimpse at how someone is growing up, and thus feel some kinship with the events of your own childhood.
Of course, no review can go without mentioning the incredible feat of filmmaking on display here. While the finished product has many aspects that are a bit rough and awkward, the sheer dedication and talent involved in keeping this project afloat is mindboggling.
It was a 12 year production that required continuity in both creativity and talent, and for the most part, they pulled it off. Characters stay consistent, and the whole film maintains the same visual and thematic tone throughout. I think the filmmakers got extremely lucky that no important cast members decided to drop out during the course of filming. While minor characters could be easily written out, it would have been a major blow if Coltrane had suddenly had a spiritual awakening and decided to move to Africa.
The acting is mostly solid, and Arquette’s Academy Award is well deserved, but some of the side players are noticeably awful. Part of the problem is how much the film relies on kid actors. Kids are generally terrible actors, and it’s no different here. The bullying scene where Mason is confronted in the bathroom should be tense and upsetting. After all, it’s a child getting bullied in a new school. However, the two bullies are so amateurish in their line deliveries that the scene becomes hilariously awkward. Okay, so I’m making fun of child actors, but it’s not my fault they ruined an otherwise crucial scene.
While we can pardon bad performances from the kids, there’s no excuse for the actor (Perella) who plays Drunk Stepfather #1. Honestly, I’m conflicted as to whether he’s a bad actor or simply a badly written character, but his “alcoholic and abusive stepfather” changes from menacing to cartoonish in the blink of an eye. I’m just going to chalk this one up to uneven directing. Okay, and maybe piss-poor acting, too.
Another fault of the film, and this is crucial for its re-watchability, is its lack of finesse. Yes, it’s a film shot over 12 years, and it’s incredible that they pulled it off successfully. But the film often feels tepid and limited in scope. The only cinematic shot comes towards the end, as Mason is driving to college. Every other scene has the subtlety and panache of a soap opera, and at three hours long, that diminishes a lot of the potential impact. Scenes often blend together because the camera work is so drab, and while the overall film works, one can only wish that Linklater added something more to the experience. Of course, Linklater has always been a more subdued filmmaker, but most of his films aren’t three hours long.
Overall, Boyhood is a tremendous achievement, and while a lot of people will see it due to all the awards and accolades it received in the last year, this is primarily a film made by a cinephile for cinephiles. It offers little in the way of straightforward entertainment, but if you’re ready to immerse yourself in a truly unique three-hour experience, then Boyhood offers enough to reflect on to make it worthwhile.