There has never been and will never be another film quite like Boyhood. That much is certain. Shot over a period of twelve years with the same cast, at any moment such a bold project could have turned disastrous. Central star Ellar Coltrane could have grown from precocious young boy to hideous hoodlum, funding for a project with no end in sight could have disintegrated or Ethan Hawke could have been killed in a freak owl attack. There were a million different ways the project could have been derailed or altered considering its massive span of shooting. Perhaps this unpredictability and constant threat of chaos is what allows Boyhood to succeed on such a spectacular level. Linklater has always worked best with a bit of uncertainty, such as with the real time improvisational nature of the Before Sunrise series, and in practice this is an expansion of that exercise. A series of twelve short films stitched together in a truly flawless cinematic manner. Visions, ideas and realities change with time and Linklater has fully embraced that as Boyhood moves fluidly and naturally throughout its chronicles.
It’s incredibly difficult to effectively summarize Boyhood’s plot. I suppose at its heart Boyhood is about all of us– our youth and our journeys to who we are today reflected through the experience of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a young boy living in South Texas. We first see a wide-eyed child dealing with the annoyances of his attention seeking– not to mention scene stealing– older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater), coping with a mostly absent but loving father (Ethan Hawke). Mason has yet to grow up and receive his first taste of how unfair the world really is when his mother (Patricia Arquette) suddenly moves the family. We also experience his joy and exploration as he enjoys the simple freedom of riding his bike around the neighborhood with his best friend, discovering how his own opinions and ideas have grown and blossomed as he matures. This innocent youth gives way to confusion and drive as hormones rage and passion grows without direction. Mason experiences first love and the inevitable first heartbreak. He learns what he loves to do but struggles as all of us do with where to go from there. You could say Boyhood is about nothing in particular, but about everything in general as we experience the defining moments of life through fresh eyes.
While Coltrane’s character Mason serves as a foundation, Boyhood encompasses far more than one young boy’s journey. We witness Ethan Hawke shake off a restless and rebellious bachelorhood to settle down with a minivan and creepy dad mustache. Patricia Arquette’s cyclical journey takes her through companions, career strives and ultimately culminates in her combined feelings of exhaustion, pride and sorrow at her children growing up. Natural star Lorelei Linklater completely transform from adorable camera hog to a reserved and caring presence. It’s a film that provides hope that people do change and even moments that conclude at the characters’ lowest points pick back up a year later to show life has moved forward and so have they. As with many of Linklater’s projects this was clearly a collaborative effort with the real life formations of the younger pair of stars’ personalities and talents coinciding with the minute directions the film takes. It’s a special experience to truly see Coltran and Lorelei Linklater grow alongside their fictional counterparts.
Without a doubt this is Linklater’s masterwork. It is a true testament to his skill and patience how effortlessly the film flows. It could have easily felt disjointed or downright jarring as 2002 technology gave way to modern digital film. There is maybe one single shot in the entire running time that feels dated– while the cast may age, the first shot looks as crisp and consistent as the final bookend. It’s a gorgeous film that showcases a side of the South we haven’t really seen in recent films like Mud, Prince Avalanche and Joe. There’s been such a focus on the wild and untamed wilderness or down and gritty dirty South that the often overlooked weird, charming aspects of the typical suburb upbringing wind up kind of strikingly beautiful. Even with stops in hill country creeks or energetic downtown Austin, everything is shot in a way that feels authentic and grounded even when infused with the glow of a romanticized memory. Linklater’s soundtrack choices heighten this rush of nostalgia as each song perfectly encompasses what a year in this character’s life would be. They never feel too broad or snobbish, but accurate to what Mason would listen to and what others around him would be listening to. Perhaps where Linklater has impressed me most, though is Boyhood’s pacing. There are transitions where you won’t even notice the passage of time, and in particular the slow escalation of the alcoholism and violence of Mason’s stepfather is brilliantly executed. There aren’t enough films realistically dealing with the issue of divorce, but even fewer deal with the psychological side effects of divorce. As Mason’s mother whisks her kids away from a volatile situation, Mason angrily points out the stepsiblings they’ve left behind. Every character displays his or her distinct human flaws, but rarely does anyone feel like a villain. Linklater carefully examines the underlying empathy and how they reveal it as they grow.
I had the opportunity to view the film with the cast at Austin’s Paramount Theatre during SXSW, and listening to Coltrane choke up as he discussed how even when he was six years old he had always pictured this moment inside the Paramount touched something inside of me. Boyhood is so much more than a film or even a piece of cinema history. It’s a piece of Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater’s history: a documentation of their childhood and blossoming into adulthood captured on film. Watching Boyhood is the chance to watch a kid’s twelve-year dream be fulfilled, and relive your own.
We originally saw Boyhood at SXSW, but its limited release expands this Friday. Find it at a theater near you.
Nate Abernethy is a magical sprite we captured and forced to do film reviews. He somehow also wound up with a twitter account @NateAbernethy