‘Boyhood’ has received a lot of free marketing and curiosity regarding its central stunt of filming a single actor over the course of twelve years. However, Richard Linklater’s latest film is far from a parlor trick. It feels like a culmination, a career-capping masterpiece from a filmmaker whose primary interest has always been hanging around and watching characters. This time he just hung around long enough to tap into something profound.
The film is as long as ‘Transformers: Age of Extinction’ yet feels half as ass-taxing. Watching twelve years so wonderfully and thoroughly condensed into 160 minutes is much less draining than almost three hours of nearly incomprehensible twisted metal. The plot, like the film itself, plays small yet feels large. Ellar Coltrane stars from age 5-years-old until 18 as Mason. Mason’s parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) have split up and his sister (Richard Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) can be irritating in the way that all siblings are.
Arquette moves the children through a few failed relationships with would-be stepfathers/confirmed alcoholics, but she also puts herself through school and becomes a college teacher. Hawke grows from an enthusiastic man-child with dreams of rock stardom into a wise and functional adult. Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow from kids into young adults with all that implies. The film has big dramatic moments, but no more than happens in anyone’s life and never in a way that stretches credibility given the extended time span that the story covers. It always feels small and real. The transitions in time are abrupt, noticeable only by the main actor’s physical growth and a few fleeting mentions of contemporary events. Like all Linklater movies, each individual scene feels so small as to almost be inconsequential. Yet the cumulative effect is almost indescribably powerful.
Somehow, Linklater truly makes you feel like you’ve lived with these people for over a decade by the time the credits roll. The details all add up and the aging conceit never feels like a gimmick.
Of course, some precedents to this type of lifespan observational filmmaking exist, such as Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series that began with ‘The 400 Blows’, Michael Apted’s ‘Up’ documentary series, or Linklater’s own ‘Before Sunrise’ trilogy. Yet no one has ever dared to attempt such an ambitious long-form cinematic storytelling in a single movie before. Logistically, it must have been a nightmare to pull together, and it’s an admirable directorial feat for that reason alone. But it also says a great deal about his particular skills and gifts as a filmmaker that it’s almost impossible to think about this while watching ‘Boyhood’.
Linklater’s primary fascination has always been observation, whether it be the anthropological high school stoner comedy of ‘Dazed and Confused’, the community of eccentrics in ‘Slacker’, or even Jack Black’s pint-sized motley crue in ‘School of Rock’. He has an extraordinary ability to craft fully immersive movies that hinge not on plot twists and story beats, but on conversation and moments of acutely realized behavior. In that way, ‘Boyhood’ is the ultimate Linklater movie, deriving its power from observing a single family for long enough that deep truths about each member’s personal growth and upbringing start to reflect off his creation. There are moments towards the end when characters directly discuss these themes, but somehow even in those scenes the film feels wholly naturalistic. They’re the type of conversations those people might have in those moments, even if they’re also important lines of dialogue for the characters to say.
Obviously, for a film like this to work, the acting must be impeccable. Thankfully, Linklater’s skill with casting hasn’t dulled since he essentially discovered an entire generation of stars for ‘Dazed and Confused’. Ellar Coltrane is a remarkable find. The entire movie hinges on his believability, and he never ceases to be natural from start to finish. Despite the title, part of what makes the movie so special is that’s it’s a carefully crafted study of an entire family told through Coltrane’s eyes. Lorelei Linklater is just as strong and goes through a growth just as dramatic even if she doesn’t feature in every scene.
Despite those two central characters going through such momentous physical changes, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke might steal the movie. Both actors are given even greater dramatic arcs than the kids, and carry them off exquisitely. Arquette goes from a confused single mother, to an abused woman in a horrible marriage, to a strong, independent and successful woman without for a second feeling like a different person. Hawke, on the other hand, grows from a bit of a deadbeat into a white collar Christian without ever feeling like a leap or a cheat. While Coltrane and Linklater might signal the time span of the movie through their physical growth, Hawke and Arquette are tasked with expressing full internal and emotional character transformations. They do it so well that most viewers will take them for granted, even though both actors give arguably the finest performances of their careers.
‘Boyhood’ is an easy movie to oversell. It’s a film that deserves to be slapped with poster quote adjectives like “masterpiece” and “landmark.” Yet, to go into the movie expecting a grand sweeping masterpiece that will change what you think cinema is capable of would be a mistake. ‘Boyhood’ is a very small movie, comprised of a series of small moments that build up to something more. Let it wash over you. At first it will seem cute and relatable. Then towards the end you’ll feel like you’ve lived a life with this family. Your brain will start to race and your emotions will start to swell. It’s only when all the little pieces come together that ‘Boyhood’ emerges as an experience that feels deep, wonderful, moving and all-encompassing. You know, like life.