There’s a conceit at the center of Richard Linklater‘s new film Boyhood that imbues it with a unique and wonderful power absolutely absent from any other movie. It’s usually hyperbole to say a film is unlike anything you’ve seen before, but in this case it’s very true. In order to tell the story of a boy’s life from age six to eighteen, the writer/director assembled a cast willing to film for a week or so each year… for twelve years. The result is a coming-of-age tale where the usually accepted norm — child actors being replaced with older child actors as the character ages — is itself replaced with the smoothly subtle and unexpectedly touching effect of actually watching a boy (and his family) age before our eyes.
We drop into Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) life at six years old to find him in a small bit of trouble at school. His mom (Patricia Arquette) shares his teacher’s concerns on the drive home with the predominant one being Mason’s penchant for letting his mind wander to the world beyond the classroom. His curious and warm eyes — his only features to remain constant as his face and body age and mature around them over the years to come — carry that same casual inquisitiveness up into his eighteenth year when we leave him and his life just as unceremoniously as we arrived.
There’s no doubt or debate that Boyhood is an unparalleled achievement, and if you grew up in America (or possibly other Western countries) the film will touch upon your own memories in surprisingly affecting ways, but the film’s unconventional nature and the magic it creates can’t shield it from conventional issues. That said, there’s no film I’d care to nitpick or criticize less than this one.
Mason’s family life is in flux across the years stemming from his parents’ divorce some time before we arrive on scene. He lives with his mom and sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter), and they’re occasionally visited by a dad (Ethan Hawke) who’s still in need of his own share of growing up. Mom gets remarried (and re-divorced), Mason discovers girls, pot and a love for photography, dad gets remarried and sells his GTO and the world keeps on spinning.
Linklater captures the passage of time through references to the bigger outside world of pop culture and politics and avoids the need for onscreen text alerting us of the year we’re in at any given moment. References to Star Wars and Obama aside the march of time is captured best in the appearance of Mason and his family. Arquette and Hawke see their weight, hair and wrinkles fluctuate while Coltrane and Lorelei grow up awkwardly and beautifully onscreen. These small transitions are never more noticeable than when the baby-fat Mason hangs onto in a swimming hole scene with his dad melts away when we see him next as a lanky preteen chatting up girls at school.
There’s no greater narrative at work here, for better or worse, as the film is truly a slice of one boy’s life. It’s a fat slice to be sure as Mason’s life moves around him and us like the proverbial river, always shifting and offering new challenges, sights and experiences. But that constantly moving stream hints at the film’s singular issue (of note). It’s not the lack of a traditional “plot” as the film succeeds in capturing a boy’s life through its seemingly meandering style. Instead, the issue is that Mason, the boy whose life we’re watching unfold, is as much of a passive observer of it as we are.
It’s unclear if its by design of Linklater’s writing and direction or if it’s a limitation in Coltrane’s acting ability, but Mason’s lack of emotional reaction of any tangible kind is the singular distraction from the film’s otherwise wonderfully-rendered world. Mason leaves friends and siblings behind, gets bullied, loses a girlfriend, endures an aggressive dressing-down from a drunken stepfather inches from his face and never shows anything less than a casual, curious acceptance of it all. I’ve known kids, I was a kid, and kids are reactionary beings. (Teens even more so.)
Is our ellipsis-like presence in his life landing by coincidence on the moments where he’s simply feeling unfazed? Are we only seeing him in between outbursts or reactions? Coltrane’s performance has a charismatic and zen-like appeal, but Mason ultimately serves as little more than a placeholder for our own memories and emotions, and even worse — he becomes the least interesting character in his own tale. Samantha is the same as the closest she gets to a heightened reaction is some early wisenheimer backtalk to one of her parents (and a fake cry after an irrepressibly delightful Britney Spears impersonation). To be clear, both kids are casually entertaining, but it’s the adults who are left to emotionally respond to life’s bumps and roadblocks in affecting and interesting ways. Arquette in particular unearths meaty pockets of raw emotion along her character’s journey through a performance that reminds us of her immense talent.
Recollections of our own lives are integral to the film’s success, and Mason’s calm doesn’t prevent or stifle the triggering of memories and shared moments to profound effect. Glimpses of embarrassments, achievements, mistakes and friendships past swirled through my head as Mason’s life onscreen echoed snapshots from my own, and I was left feeling far more than most films manage. It never tries to be an A to B, B to C-type of story and instead feels no obligation to follow each thread through to its conclusion.
And that’s okay, in part, because our own lives inform those gaps. I know how that confrontation with those bullies ends, I know what the first touch of a girl’s hand feels like, I know the exciting loneliness of picking up and moving away from home for the first time… Mason’s life is my life and your life and our lives. And through the tens of thousands of films that have come before we’ve never quite seen it so clearly on the big screen. There’s no suspense mystery or special effects up there, but we’re rapt with what we’re seeing all the same.
Boyhood‘s magic is fueled by its twelve year conceit, but equally remarkable is its ability to quickly and effortlessly pull you into its embrace to the point that its nearly three hour run-time feels far shorter and makes you wish it was far longer. Sure Mason is an amiable but fairly flat guide and a handful of attempts at narrative (not one but two drunken step-dads?) are intrusive, but this is a wondrous film and experience all the same.
I look forward to seeing it again soon and then again maybe not so soon. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t hoping that Linklater and his cast were already penciling in time for a follow-up called Manhood. (On second thought, they should probably find a new title. Good thing they have twelve years to fine tune it.)
The Upside: A unique, wondrous and personally affecting film; soundtrack of a life; Patricia Arquette
The Downside: Intrusion of “plot”; Mason’s oddly unreal lack of emotion
On the Side: Lorelei Linklater reportedly grew bored of the project 3-4 years in and asked her father to kill off her character. He refused, and she soon regained her interest and enthusiasm.