Eller Coltrane, Ethan Hawke and Lorelei Linklater in BOYHOOD
Boyhood is a profoundly moving film – and I’m still trying to figure out why. It’s a family drama without a drop of emotional manipulation – there’s no big moment of redemption and no puppies are saved. It’s just about a boy growing up in a family that we all can recognize and going through a series of moments that all of us have gone through. Still, I found myself responding very emotionally and, hardass as I may be, I had a lump in my throat and moist eyes during the last half hour or so.
There’s a sense of fundamental human truth in Boyhood that comes from the amazing, risky and groundbreaking way that writer-director Richard Linklater made this movie. Boyhood traces the story of Mason (Eller Coltrane), his big sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) from the time when Mason was six-years-old to when he is going off to college at age 18. Linklater and the cast shot the movie in 39 days over a TWELVE YEAR PERIOD. So the cast members actually aged twelve years without the need for creating that effect with makeup or by switching the child actors. Other than Linklater’s own Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight series of romances spaced nine years apart, he only movies that have used this technique of aging-in-real-time have been documentaries, most notably the 7 Up series and Hoop Dreams.
Besides the authenticity that comes from the aging-in-real-time, the key to Boyhood is the reality of each moment. Each scene in the film is universal. Every kid has had to suffer the consequences of the life decisions made by his/her parents. Every kid has felt disrespected by a parental edict or disappointed when a parent has failed to come through. Everybody has been bullied in the school bathroom. Everybody has felt the excitement of connecting with a first love – and then the shock/humiliation/heartbreak of getting dumped. No scene individually moves the plot forward. But each scene helps complete our picture of who Mason is and how he is being shaped by his experiences.
Of course, when parents divorce and when a kid’s family is blended with that of a step-parent’s, those are especially big deals. All those things happen to Mason in Boyhood; he has control over none of them, but they all have a lasting impact on his life and development. And when his mom decides to better herself by working her way through college and grad school to become a college instructor, her self-improvement makes her less available to her kids – and that’s a big deal, too. (This part of Linklater’s story is autobiographical.)
As we trace Mason’s early years, we relate to these universal experiences and, without noticing it, start rooting for him and his sister. By the time he is 15, we are hooked and so seriously invested in him that it’s easy to feel as much pride in his high school graduation as do his fictional parents.
The actors who begin as children and age into young adults – Eller Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter) – are very good. Arquette and Hawke are also excellent in playing warts-and-all parents; each parent grows (in different ways) over the twelve years as much as do their kids.
So what’s it all about – as in, what’s life all about? That question is addressed explicitly by four characters in separate scenes in the final 35 minutes of the movie – by Mason as a brash and cynical, bullshitting 17-year-old, by his mom in a self-reflective meltdown, by his dad in a moment of truthful humility and by a potential girlfriend wise beyond her years. Whether any one of them is right and whether any one of them speaks for the filmmaker – that’s up to you.
Linklater has made other films that are exceptional and groundbreaking, most notably the Before series. His indie breakthrough Slacker followed a series of characters, handing off the audience to one conversation to another – a structure seemingly without structure. He followed that his Waking Life, another random series of conversations with his live actors were animated by rotoscope. Even his recent dark comedy Bernie is offbeat – a sympathetic take on a real life murderer (who is now out of prison and living in Linklater’s garage apartment). But Boyhood is Linklater’s least talky movie – and his masterpiece.
Boyhood is an important film – a milestone in the history of cinema. (I sure didn’t expect that I would ever write that sentence.) It may turn out to be the best film of the decade. It’s a Must See. Boyhood is available on DVD from Netflix and streaming from Amazon Instant, iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play and Xbox Video. Settle in and turn off all distractions for the next two hours and forty minutes – you’ll be glad that you did.
Eller Coltrane in BOYHOOD