If the only thing to be said about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was the fact of its existence, it would be an impressive achievement and one of the year’s most fascinating films. For Linklater to not only pull off his stunt, but to tell such a rich, engrossing, and wonderfully textured story in the process is nothing less than astounding. Boyhood is easily the best film of the year so far.
Linklater has pulled off other filmmaking stunts before, like reimagining Fast Food Nation from yet another food documentary into a narrative feature, or the recurring installments every nine years of the Before series. But the idea behind Boyhood is so audacious — the sort of thing tossed out more as a grand concept than a realistic plan — that it’s hard to imagine a filmmaker even attempting it until you’ve seen the finished product. The story traces a boy’s life over twelve years from the ages of six to eighteen, filmed using the same cast over the same span of time.
That the boy’s divorced parents, Olivia and Mason Sr., are played by long-time Linklater collaborators Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette undoubtedly helped them keep coming back year after year to shoot the next scenes. His older sister, Samantha, is played by Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, which is another way of keeping an actor under contract. But the story centers on Mason Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane throughout. And that’s the most enormous stroke of luck: how can you possibly know when hiring a seven-year-old actor that he’ll be any good when he’s seventeen, or that he’ll even want to keep going? Coltrane could have backed out at any point, leaving the entire project hanging. But he didn’t, and he’s excellent throughout.
Outside these four, the rest of the cast come and go, though they are consistently cast from year to year. After Olivia moves with the children to Houston to go back to school, she marries again. Mason’s stepfather is played by the same actor over the years it takes for him to go from new provider to alcoholic, authoritarian bully before Olivia leaves him. In later years, high school friends and even a girlfriend are enlisted, each providing some recurring continuity from year to year.
Through it all, we see the truly formative experiences of a young man’s life. Boyhood redefines the coming-of-age movie, escaping from the fantasy of a single crucial time easily boiled down into an hour and a half, complete with a pop soundtrack and a trophy girlfriend (or sometimes boyfriend) to symbolize the Attainment Of Maturity. Real life is aimless and meandering. More things happen to us than we actively do ourselves, and there is no single narrative through-line that defines our lives.
Mason watches it all, but while he’s a smart boy, he’s not preternaturally gifted with our adult perspective, the way young protagonists often are. When he’s younger, he is utterly at the whims of forces greater than himself. As he grows older, he exercises more and more self-determination, and not always for the better. In short: he grows up.
If any movie deserves another full-length documentary about its development and production, Boyhood is it. I left the theater as fascinated with how they managed to pull it off as with the story itself, and full of questions. How much of the overall story did Linklater have sketched out at the beginning? How did they plan each year’s scenes? Did they shoot the beginnings of many more storylines than we finally saw, and winnow out the ones that weren’t working after a few years? Did they add in new scenes, or change their plans based on what they found they had to work with each year as they reconvened? How did Linklater pick the timely references each year that would still resonate in our memories today?
However they did it, Boyhood is an unparalleled achievement. Some scenes are tightly focused on advancing a certain point, like an interested teacher’s mentorship. Others float aimlessly through a conversation between father and son, or time misspent with childhood friends. Either way, each one sparkles with a sense of becoming, of a boy growing into the infinitely diverse potential of the life that spills out ahead of him, as far off and indistinct as the horizon on a clear day in Texas.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.