Humility isn’t a quality of most films or filmmakers, who would shout their achievements from rooftops if it meant selling more tickets. The first of many things that impressed me about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is how oddly humble it is. This is the film he famously spent 12-years making, with a cast that the audience watches grow as scenes capture what the actors looked like from 2002-2014. Linklater continues to be one of our most inventive risk-takers, the man who gave us broad comedies like School of Rock and Dazed and Confused, but also delved into richer artistic experiments that are among the best films of recent years.
His Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly are wildly original masterpieces of animation. His Tape is a three-actors-in-a-room exercise that doesn’t play like a stunt but a taut human drama. He recently capped a wonderful trilogy that began with his wonderful Before Sunrise and even his imperfect, highly unorthodox filming of Fast Food Nation defied expectations and left adventurous audiences with some brilliant scenes to savor.
Boyhood is probably Linklater’s most ambitious work and it never seems pretentious or self-important. We watch the central figure, a young boy named Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane), grow up in front of us and deal with a series of complex and relatable circumstances. Admittedly, there are a few what-does-it-all-mean close-ups of the boy. Yet, for all the opportunities Linklater had to imply Look At What a Breakthrough This Is, you only get the sense that his goal is providing total enjoyment.
We meet Mason as he observes a dead bird, his first introduction to his ongoing questions about life, death and what it all means. Rather than the film applying a tone to match those big questions, Linklater keeps things light and relaxed, even when the characters are going through incredible hardships. Mason’s mom (Patricia Arquette) struggles to raise Mason and his sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). Mason’s dad (Ethan Hawke) is something of a child himself, estranged from Mason’s mom and living a carefree life while his ex remains firmly devoted to parenthood. The story begins in ways you’d expect, but then, like the surprises life tosses us, the narrative throws in twists that are as smart and unexpected. Nothing here feels forced, as the actors have an openness and vulnerability that makes much of this seem quite real.
The film is a brisk two hours and 45 minutes and covers a large span of time, with transitions handled in yet another brilliantly subtle way. Rather than a subtitle that reads A Year Later… or a music montage, Linklater simply cuts the essential pieces of the story together and allows us to discover how much time has passed by the appearance of the actors. We see Arquette and Hawke with varying haircuts, while Coltrane and Ms. Linklater’s growth spurts and voices changing with puberty are impossible to miss.
I grew attached to this family and was sorry to see their story end. We see behavioral patterns, good and bad, that follow them over the years: the danger of marrying an alcoholic and feelings of neglect and abandonment, countered with self realization and the power of encouraging others to follow their dreams. Since the film is long (but doesn’t feel overlong) and there are several eventful moments, you have the sensation of collecting select memories just as the family does.
The movie is funny and powerful, with scenes that capture the universal pain and joy of growing up. The work of Lorelei Linklater is every bit as remarkable and transformative as Coltrane’s. Arquette is terrific playing one of the great movie moms, and Hawke makes the dad both endearing and frustrating. I was delighted and moved to tears more than once. Linklater has given his audience a remarkable experience.
Score: Five stars