Because I was once a teenage boy myself, I can relate to the perspective a lot closer than some. The melting pot of youth does not arm us with wisdom or foresight; in those early years of parental cultivation, we are participants in the discovery of countless new sensations, many of which mold our behaviors, our observations and our ambitions based on how they reverberate in those in our line of sight. Sometimes, for better or worse, that inspires the initial desire to seek comfort in opposing values; in other circumstances, we can become ambivalent or passive, especially if numbed by the harsher events. The young hero at the center of “Boyhood” runs through well over a decade of such experiences – some critical, some sad, some joyous, others typical. Their content is not the point; only his response to them. Are they dramatized to any sort of extreme for effect? Not in the least. For Richard Linklater, the most human of modern filmmakers, these kinds of moments are simply part of a customary routine in order to deliver the protagonist to the most important point of a 12-year journey: the realization that hope is more powerful than cynicism, and that the purity of a young heart is the best channel for turning a conflicted memory into a joyous outlook.
The boy is named Mason, and he is played with unrelenting honesty by the young and ambitious Ellar Coltrane. We first meet him in one of many rites of passage of male youngsters: half-engaged in a discussion with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who expresses concern that he lacks focus at school after she has a conference with his teacher. His ambivalence in education is equaled by the nonchalant childish fights he gets into with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and when an announcement is made early on that the family will relocate to another town in order for Olivia to go to college and better the family’s situation, there is no attempt made in either sibling to feign surprise or disappointment at the notion of having to start over; they simply seem to be already used to these sorts of ongoing realities.
The underlying fuel for this engine is that Mason’s parents are divorced, and the two children do not get much chance to see their father beyond irregular visits while he is “away at work” (the mother references him being in Alaska, we suspect, because greater distances are good ways to explain away a lack of presence). When he finally does show up in those brief passages, dear old dad (Ethan Hawke) mixes his lively engagement with heavy-handed profundity, as if to make up for lost time (my favorite scene: he takes his kids through a local neighborhood to fill yards with Obama campaign banners). That reality also provides a backlog of unspoken lessons for Mason and his sister to use as they are guided along by the more dramatic tribulations of their mother, who wants desperately to provide them some kind of stability (and some financial support) and will make just about any drastic life decision she can in order to achieve that goal, including marry one of her own college professors (a man who in later years will become a drunk and an abuser, to boot). Does that make her a bad mother? No more than it makes Mason Sr. a bad father, really; the movie recognizes them as humans stumbling through the unwritten lessons of parenting, and simply regards their failures with a silent acknowledgment before moving them along to wiser moments.
What these events exist for is not to further any narrative or dramatic agenda, but to highlight the critical points in Mason’s life as he gathers experiences, absorbs them into his awareness and then uses them to formulate a portrait on what it means to be a kid caught in the onslaught of a traditional suburban upbringing. The result is one of the most ambitious (and honest) character studies of its kind, made all the more profound by the notion that its director does not conform these three hours of deadpan observations to a checklist of essential narrative elements. Like his “Waking Life” from several years prior, the strength of conviction is revealed through dialogue: honest, simple, vehemently optimistic exchanges that tend to formulate in the wake of more gloomy circumstances, and how Mason responds is dependent on the fact that his core is firmly rooted in goodness. The suggestions are nothing new for any degree of storytelling; for Linklater to insist them on us here is to recall his own sense of inner joy, and how often it permeates from his endeavors. Is “Boyhood” really about a random boy named Mason at all, or is it semi-autobiographical in that regard? Does it project some level of personal soul-searching as much as it understands the behavior of its subjects over long stretches of time?
Linklater, who has made an enormous amount of insightful human stories over the last three decades, says little but conveys much just by having the audacity to undertake such a daunting task. A span of 12 years is but a blip on the radar of earthly existence, but for a movie camera it plays much deeper than that. Most studios are challenged by the suggestion of committing to a film that could undergo months of exhausting shoots; to offer any sort of approving nod to a project that would take well over a decade to complete – and with persistent follow-ups into the lives of the same set of actors, all of whom age with this story in real time – immediately highlights two remarkable facets of the creative process: 1) that movie artists are still driven enough by their ideas to think in big proportions; and 2) the studio that funded this endeavor was willing to think past the immediacy of box office receipts for the sake of supporting a broader vision. “Boyhood” is less admirable as a straight story or character study, but those prospects undercut the whole point; it is driven by the purity of an ingenious idea, and takes one man’s professional aspirations to the absolute height of cinematic possibility. This is not only a great film, but an important landmark in how great films can be made.
Written by DAVID KEYES
Drama (US); 2014; Rated R for (); Running Time: 165 Minutes
Ellar Coltrane: Mason
Patricia Arquette: Olivia
Ethan Hawke: Dad
Lorelei Linklater: Samantha
Marco Perella: Professor Bill Welbrock
Produced by Sandra Adair, Caroline Kaplan, Richard Linklater, Kirsten McMurray, Vincent Palmo Jr., Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss, Cathleen Sutherland and Anne Walker-McBay; Directed and written by Richard Linklater