Amazing technique and enthralling storytelling at the same time. Boyhood is the best film ever by Richard Linklater, the genius-philosophical writer and director of “Dazed and Confused,” “Before Sunrise” and “Bernie.” He filmed over a course of 12 years with his actors (Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette), shooting with continuity. The result is more just physical growth observance on camera, spiritual growth rubs off too. Texas kid Mason (Coltrane, starting at 6-years old) grows up in a broken home, living with his blustery mother (Arquette), occasionally reconnecting with his aimless father (Hawke) on the weekends. Told over two hour and forty-five minutes, the story swings are unpredictable.
I don’t know the full story behind the making besides the obvious footnotes you would learn by watching a featurette. I have the feeling though that Linklater worked entirely with a rough outline, watched each year’s footage, and came back a year later to film with new sharper rewrites as he saw it progress. Twelve years would give an artist time to change the direction of where the story is going. Everybody about “Boyhood,” in effect, feels spontaneous.
We get more than just vignettes, and more than just the boy’s story. Linklater’s film has a great deal to be about the traps of parenting: Shielding your child from a drunk relative; worrying about your child on a sleepover with only older boy supervision; concern whether your child will get over the disheveled phase; how to elevate above teasing from others at school; teaching not to sourly get trapped forever by a first girlfriend, there’s more to life out there; that education exists outside of schools, in real life and in work; and a parent’s tactic to feign certainty at all times above all us, and why that sometimes has to do.
Mom Olivia goes through a number of suitors that become defacto dads, but as the years progress, she becomes more self-reliant. Olivia however becomes a fascinating female martyr, and Arquette is beyond brilliant in the part (she also goes from being a hot mom to grouser). She is never able to forgive Mason Sr. for whatever tore them apart, which comes more and more into focus as a mistake. Although Dad starts as an immature flunky, he grows into a mature male role model – an inspirational parental force that leads Junior from boyhood to manhood. You can always depend on Linklater to supply his actors’ incredible dialogue to bond these themes.
Before any such plateaus, Mason Jr. is rather shy and inward. He is given one sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). Her arc is engrossing just as it is sad, going from eager and self-assured, to beleaguered and sluggish in her behavior after having endured years of negative reinforcement – mostly from her mother. It’s Mason who learns how to think more on his own, due more to his father. And getting past the abusive stepfathers are only an obstacle that makes him grow stronger. But not Samantha, unfortunately. You wonder if her life will sink into a rut, which is just learned behavior.
After 12 years, what do these characters really have to show for themselves? The once absentee dad has put together vast family connections, and is always actively happy. The over-vigilant mom has a peak of happiness and success about halfway, but it leads to the doldrums of an empty nest. Samantha is still a funny girl, but to me, stunted emotionally. Mason goes through an overly arty phase with overlong hair and transforms into a young man adept with talent, social comfort and the insight to seize opportune moments. There are a dozen other characters I didn’t talk about. There are a thousand other moments I will leave you to discover for yourself.
“Boyhood” is extraordinary and emotionally revelatory.
164 Minutes. Rated R.
COMING OF AGE DRAMA / INSPIRATIONAL / MASTERPIECE VIEWING
Film Cousins: “Small Change” (1976, France); “This Boy’s Life” (1993); “The Tree of Life” (2011); “56 Up” (2013).