R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.
Running time: 162 minutes.
Four stars out of four.
Simply as a piece of experimental filmmaking, “Boyhood” would have been fascinating.
What Richard Linklater did was so inspired, so risky, and it could have gone so many different ways. Linklater shot this Texas coming-of-age tale using the same actors over a period of 12 years — checking in with them between such disparate projects as “Before Sunset,” “Bad News Bears” and “Bernie,” shooting several minutes at a time in order to create the sensation of watching a life unfold on screen.
Cast members could have pulled out, changed their minds, not wanted to be actors anymore, gotten tied up with other projects. The biggest gamble of all was the young man at the film’s center and the subject of its title: Ellar Coltrane. Chosen when he was just a chubby-cheeked little boy, he could have been a bust as the years passed. Instead, he blossoms vividly into a young man with ambitions and a particular worldview, going through all the awkward adolescent stages and maturing right before our eyes. And by the end, with his lanky frame, chiseled cheekbones and facial scruff, he bears a striking resemblance to Ethan Hawke, Linklater’s longtime friend and frequent collaborator, who’s been playing his father all this time. It’s just one of many elements that make this film so quietly miraculous.
We witness as Coltrane’s Mason goes from a first-grader to a college freshman and experiences myriad recognizable rites of passage: moving away from friends he knows he’ll never see again; struggling to fit in at a new school; suffering that first bad haircut; savoring late-night kisses in the back of a car; enduring his first heartbreak; wondering what to do with the rest of his life. It’s all the prosaic stuff of daily existence, but it’s presented in such keenly detailed, unadorned fashion that we find ourselves drawn in and emotionally invested. The cumulative sensation of caring deeply for this young man and the people around him ultimately sneaks up on you with a surprisingly profound punch. You truly feel as if you have gotten to know these people, and that they are real.
“Boyhood” begins with its signature image: Mason lying on the grass in front of his elementary school, looking up at the clouds and daydreaming while waiting for his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), to pick him up. A divorced, single mom, she’s raising Mason and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), alone while the kids’ largely absent father, Mason Sr. (Hawke), seeks work in Alaska. Sassy and scene-stealing, Lorelei Linklater is a total natural: the annoyed voice of reason, but never in a way that seems studied or precocious.
We follow this family as they struggle to make it in middle-class America from about 2001 to 2013 — moving to Texas cities including Houston and San Marcos, living in apartments and houses of various sizes, studying at several different junior high and high schools. The choices Olivia makes are clearly always in the interest of improving her children’s lives — of seeking a future for them that’s better than the ones she and Mason Sr. ended up with for themselves as young, ill-prepared parents. This includes aligning herself with a series of boyfriends and husbands who probably seemed like good ideas at the time but eventually reveal their true, flawed selves. (Marco Perella, as the divorced psychology professor who moves the family into a suburban Houston McMansion with his own two kids, plays one of the most skeevy and sadistic characters I’ve seen on screen in a long time.)
While she’s the hard-working anchor, Mason Sr. is the cool dad — rumbling into town in his muscle car, taking the kids to the bowling alley or a baseball game, all the while secretly acknowledging that he’s not the most responsible, reliable father in the world. But much of the beauty of “Boyhood” comes from its lack of judgement. Linklater is kind to his characters — he’s curious about them, he cares about them, so we end up feeling the same way, as well. They make mistakes and enjoy minor successes along the way without the dramatic milestones that mark more traditional narratives, which makes the entirety of the film’s arc feel relatable and true.
Yes, I said “entirety.” Don’t feel daunted by the running time you see at the top of the page. “Boyhood” is nearly three hours long but it breezes by, and by the time the credits roll, you actually won’t want it to be over. You’ll want to continue following these people to learn how their lives turn out.
The sense of naturalism that permeates “Boyhood” is reminiscent of Linklater’s groundbreaking 1991 debut “Slacker,” with its shaggy vibe and easygoing pace. It’s filled with conversations that don’t necessarily further the plot but rather provide a slice of life, some relevant pieces of political and pop culture and a glimpse into the way people communicate with each other. Linklater even returns to Austin for a segment when Mason is in high school, walking the music-filled streets all night with his girlfriend who’s planning to attend the University of Texas the next fall. In many ways, “Boyhood” feels like a richer, more emotionally mature “Slacker” — a “Slacker” with ambition, if you’ll pardon the contradiction.
But even making that comparison seems insufficient. “Boyhood” is a singular, masterful work of art. Linklater and his team have done something incredibly difficult and made it look effortless. The result is easily one of the best films of the year.