I’m not sure how much I have to say about this movie other than that I can easily see it winning the Oscar for best film. Most people have probably already heard about the filming process, in which director Richard Linklater assembled the cast every year to shoot a few scenes for twelve years in a row. Thus we watch all the characters age, and in particular we watch the protagonist, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, age from 6 to 18. What else could such a movie be other than a coming-of-age story? We watch Mason grow from a dependent child to a young adult who is starting to find his own way in the world.
Along the way we get bits of drama, much of it hinging around Mason’s mother’s bad luck with husbands. Although Mason is the central character, his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) are also fascinating characters in themselves, with Arquette playing the single mother who struggles to establish a career for herself and Hawke playing the flaky ex who gradually gets his act together with a second wife. Considering the lower middle class social strata of these white characters, their lives seemed very familiar to me. Likewise Mason’s rites of passage as a boy who’s slightly out of step with his peers.
I haven’t read any interviews with Linklater of Coltrane yet, so I’m not sure how much of the film was improvised and how much was planned. I was impressed with the quality of Coltrane’s self-expression, which sounded just like the stuff teenagers say. The final line, too, is just note perfect as a joke on what it’s like to be high on hallucinogens and yet still a beautiful benediction on the passage of time that we’ve just witnessed. It’s really uncanny how it feels like both a dumb, stoned thing to say and also a perfect summation of the story.
In a lot of ways this feels like slices of life taken from different moments in time. The only overarching story/drama is Coltrane’s coming of age, and yet it doesn’t feel like a story about that so much as a documentary embodiment of the process. One of the brilliant things that Linklater does is to make the transitions between years without telling us in any over way that time has passed. Usually you can quickly tell that a change has occurred because Mason’s hair style has changed, but sometimes it’s not immediately obvious. This really brings home the continuity of the actors playing these characters, as opposed to the standard method of using different actors to play different ages of a character. We witness the physical changes in these people over time, and it’s an amazing, deeply moving special effect.
Why Boyhood, and not Childhood? We also see Mason’s older sister, Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei), growing up, but the focus is definitely on Mason. Still, the emphasis on his boyhood rather than childhood is interesting. There are a number of scenes focused on male rites of initiation, although there’s also a hilarious scene where the father pleads with an embarrassed teenaged Samantha to use contraception when she starts having sex. I’m actually not sure what to make of the gendered title. It nags at me a bit.
Well, whether it was scripted out or improvised, this is an impressive evocation of growing up. It really captures a strand of the American experience in a way I’ve never seen before. Film is necessarily about time, and Boyhood brings that home with a sweet vengeance. 2014 is turning into an extraordinary year for movies.