Epic in endeavour but intimate in scope, “Boyhood” is a mesmerizingly gentle, deceptively intelligent drama charting 12 years in the life of a family, seen from the perspective of the younger of the two children, Mason.
The film starts when Mason is six years old, living with his sister and his mother an indeterminate number of years after his parents have divorced. The need to complete her education drives Mason’s mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) to move home to enrol in college just after his father (Ethan Hawke) comes back into their lives. The story unfolds over Mason’s school career from first grade to twelfth grade and taking in his parents’ subsequent remarriages and the various trials and tribulations of growing up.
Told in a vaguely fly on the wall style, there is no sense of sterile documentary detachment here and the story, really a series of vignettes spread across twelve years are blended together cleverly to give a sense of the flow of Mason’s life. Although there are dark and serious events which occur, including a tense family dinner which sticks vividly in the mind, often we as viewers are left to surmise what is happening in the lives of the adults because we, like the children, are being ‘protected’ from the bad as much as possible.
The cast are rock solid, all the more incredible given the nature of how the film was made piecemeal across twelve years, with Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke crafting fully developed, three dimensional characters, rich with a shared history of intimacy and hostility from their sporadic screen times while Ellar Coltrane is breathtaking as the quiet centre of the movie, the unassuming and lackadaisical Mason Jr. Mason’s sister Samantha played by Lorelei Linklater, daughter of director Richard Linklater, is the weakest of the core cast but it’s no discredit to her. Her cast mates are so good and given her character is that of an older sister viewed through a brother’s eyes it’s little wonder she’s given little to do apart from sulk, complain and generally flounce around in a huff.
The real appeal of this movie lies beyond the gentle, entirely character driven drama and in the sweep of what it shows. It’s an amazing, poignant feeling at the end of the movie, as Mason goes off to college, when you realise you’ve genuinely just watched this young man grow up before your eyes. No special effects, no camera trickery and no make-up, just a genuine love and commitment to a project by the cast and crew to see it through over the course of so many years. It feels like a privilege to be able to see Mason grow up from daydreaming kid to college-bound young man and although the film is a hefty two and three quarter hours long, you’ll feel like you’ve accumulated a lifetime’s worth of memories.
Director Richard Linklater’s tender, honest story of the parent-child relationship is a multi-layered, multi-faceted triumph, charting not only the obvious growth and changes to the children (it hard to avoid the conclusion that puberty is much crueller for much longer to boys than to girls) but the maturation and evolution of the parents as they all find their place in a very contemporary extended family. There are some lovely touchstones of the years between 2002 and 2014 too, reminding us not only how quickly children grow up but how quickly the world around them has changed too as fashions, phones and even photography change from year to year and this year’s must-have gadget will soon be a clunky retro joke.
I found the film also challenged my preconceptions and expectations of what a film needs to be as I kept waiting for the ‘defining event’ on which the picture would pivot and Mason’s life would be changed forever but it never comes. There is no ‘Hallmark Moment’ or devastating accident or illness which permanently changes Mason’s landscape, although Linklater does seem to delight in teasing these things might be about to happen before continuing on as before. In doing so, he shows the truth of the phrase ‘life is what happens while you’re making other plans’ and I realised that in waiting for and anticipating some cataclysmic event, I had missed a myriad of more subtle yet no less important rites of passage.
Captivating, warm, wistful and thought-provoking, this is filmmaking taken to a different level and is unlike anything that has come before. Beautiful to look at, wonderfully directed and superbly acted, this will deservedly be hailed as one of the greatest films of the year (or century) but perhaps the best accolade is that Mason and his family will feel like real people you have known for years, and you’ll carry their memories with you long after the credits have rolled.