You can view Boyhood as a dramatic film that runs 165 minutes, or you can view it as a documentary with dramatic elements that runs for 12 years. Either option you take, you will leave the movie with a strangely familiar feeling, as if you’ve known these characters your whole life. Heck, the young boy, Mason, might even be your best friend. What director Richard Linklater has accomplished here is nothing short of cinematic, technological and ambitious brilliance. Just a few days ago I named David Fincher’s Gone Girl (2014) the best American movie of the year so far; though incomparable by genre and style, Boyhood nudges Gone Girl aside and sticks its nose out. This is a movie that’s as wonderful as it is long.
Interesting thing, it doesn’t feel long. I suspect it’s because the screenplay, written by Linklater, provides no beginning, middle or end. There is no conflict, no resolution. No first, second or third acts. It is all just one big act, and it cleverly uses its marketing gimmick — that it was shot over a span of 12 years — to propel us into the next scene and the next scene. We become so comfortable with these characters and their stories that we almost feel obliged to see what happens next, to see how these people have grown.
To be sure, that the movie was filmed over 12 years is no mere gimmick. It is a strategic, and quite honestly, an ingenious, technique that must have been a nightmare to orchestrate. There is a stark difference between using different actors to portray the same person growing up, and using the same actor to grow up in front of the camera. Personal continuity is flawless with the latter approach. More often than not, with the former, the actor playing the younger version of a character looks nothing like the actor playing the older version. We know instinctively that the movie has skipped through time. Some movies are even courteous enough to provide a “12 years later” card, which is helpful I guess, if you’re counting the years. Boyhood is seamless in its progression. There are no cards, because no counting is required. The only way we know time has passed is by observing the physical differences in the characters and the ever-so-delicate shifts in the narrative. We know a couple has broken up not because they’ve told us so, but because their body language and dialogue help convey what has happened. Everything that develops in this movie feels natural.
Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is our hero, but he is not our star. I’ve a read a number of Boyhood’s synopses from a few websites. Some say “Boyhood is about the life of a boy as he grows from 6 to 18″. Others, “The life of a young man”. Boyhood is not about Mason. It is also about everyone he comes in contact with. Everyone he likes, dislikes, admires, loves. Even the little daughter of the woman who takes Mason’s family in in a time of crisis makes an appearance near the end, and we remember her, and we are amazed that the screenplay remembers her too. We are also amazed that the casting department manages to bring the actress back for that short cameo some 11 years later.
Boyhood is set in the cities of Houston and Austin, Texas. Mason is the son of Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), brother to Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei). Olivia and Senior are no longer together; Senior is lucky to get a weekend with his kids. He is not a lout. He is just, shall we say, flippant. But he is the fun parent, the one the kids enjoy being with, even if it’s just a trip to the bowling alley. Olivia is the hardworking single mum, tiresomely juggling her children’s code of ethics with her professional career. She makes sure the kids do their homework. Senior makes sure they get their ice cream and presents.
Olivia falls in love with an older man (Marco Perella), father to two kids of his own. Their house is vast, but the mood inside is claustrophobic. The dad is not quite so nice. Soon, Olivia and the kids are moving again. Olivia seeks a new job. Mason and Samantha must adjust to new schools. And then it happens again. Another move. Another change. The kids grow restless. Olivia grows desperate. She requires some stability, both emotionally and financially. All the while the kids correspond with Senior. He may not be directly involved in their lives, but he gets extra points for showing exuberant interest.
Apart from Olivia’s mismatched lovers, no one in the movie is inherently bad. They are people we’ve come across at some point; people we feel we know. Ordinary people. They have ordinary, everyday, heartfelt conversations.
If I was granted a wish list of missed opportunities, however, I would have liked more between Mason and Samantha. Here are two kids going through torturous times, and we are never invited to their private exchanges, of which I am sure there must have been plenty. How do they feel about what is happening? What is their relationship really like? We see them argue as kids and double date as teens. But what goes on in between? How far does their love extend?
Mason grows through life as we do. He discovers porn, video games, friends, money, vices, good music. He learns about love and sex. He gets a car, a job. He faces responsibility. He enters high school. He graduates high school. He picks up hobbies. He questions life and its meaning. He rebels. He reconnects. He opens up and closes in. There are phases he must go through. Coltrane is not the most charming of actors, nor is he the most delicate in times of need, but as Mason goes through all the stages of his life, so does Coltrane. And so do we. This is one of the best movies I have seen.
Best Moment | Pretty much everything. The scene involving a Hispanic worker is especially touching.
Worst Moment | Poor acting in the scene that involves beer drinking and razor blade throwing.