Going out. Digging in dirt. Riding your bike. Video games. New movies. Dirty magazines. Trying drugs. Lying to your parents. Shouting. Getting in trouble. Making friends. Losing friends. New schools. Good grades. Bad grades. Parents fighting. Sibling rivalry. Crushes. Breakups. Haircuts. Advice from Dad. Advice from Mom. Figuring it all out. Trying to at least get to something resembling having it figured out. Growing up.
These are just a handful of the ephemeral, familiar qualities of childhood. Perhaps these don’t speak to every upbringing, but there are some innately standard tropes that unite and define a common sense of youth. It’s comforting to know we all went through the same junk. That’s just part of the joy of watching Boyhood, a film that so immerses itself in what it is to be young that it can’t help but feel like a freshly quintessential photograph of life in America.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a unique assemblage of pictures depicting Mason Jr. (any-kid USA Ellar Coltrane), and how he navigates his own adolescence. With shades of Michael Apted’s Up series and Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, this is a special, homespun experience about life, family, and being young. This is a patient, big-hearted, authentic epic.
The story itself is deceptively simple. We follow Mason Evans Jr. as he grows up in rural Texas, emerging from boyhood to the edge of adulthood. Opening with Mason’s head focusing on the clouds, he is a dreamer, a wonderer, potentially a deep thinker. Mason is 7 and is interested in spearheads and hanging out. Who has time to hand in homework when you’re interested in so many other things? His older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s real-life daughter), is mean and petty and protective and loving.
Mason loves his parents. His mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) are separated, but they both adore their children in a frustrated way that can only be seen as tried and true parenting. Olivia is an academic, who’s suffered disastrous relationships, but is a resilient protector and nurturer to Mason and Samantha. Mason Sr. is wayward, taking his kids on weekends, trying to be the best cool Dad he can be while still figure his own life out. Mason is a product of his parents and his environment, as he goes from being this unassuming kid to being a legitimate artist on his way to college. Yet, it’s less about the path Mason takes than everything he absorbs getting to 18. Without divulging crucial moments, he experiences the scary, curious, fragile, and funny things of youth. He’s affected by the people around him, and the choices he makes, and it’s riveting to see his life unfold and how he approaches it.
As a viewer, you get hints at what Mason might be thinking at any time. You feel privy to partake in all the things that he, and in essence all of us, do early in life. It’s a comforting feeling in that Mason opens himself up to all the embarrassing and honest moments, from swishy emo hair, to overindulging in sweets and toys, to being just a total tool to your friends and family (being a teenager will always be the worst). Boyhood is legitimate. According to New York Magazine, the movie was conceived as a series of short scenes, with a general template, as opposed to an airtight script, over the last 12 years. Linklater wanted his cast to inform Boyhood as opposed to force them into a narrative. He wanted incremental occurrences and it blossoms to great effect.
No moment is wasted, no dialogue is untrue. You feel like Hawke and Coltrane are really just a boy and his father riffing on baseball and The Beatles. You empathize for Arquette’s heartbreak and frustration as she fights to be responsible for her children. All the actors are so expressively realistic. Linklater found a diamond in the rough with his casting of Coltrane. The kid, the character, the actor, the person; however we contemplate Mason Jr., he gives a performance that could be called a total artistic embodiment. Coltrane could have been forced to be a jock, or a bully, or maybe his angst-ridden qualities are circumstantial, but his extended characterization allows for more than easy labeling. He’s not just a series of trends in kid styles from the last decade. Linklater’s premise, as embodied in Mason Jr., makes for a fascinating meditation on change. Between Coltrane and his parents, the three give innovative, full-blooded performances.
Linklater directs his opus in a relaxed style with a committed vision. He knows patience is a virtue. The huge concept aside, Linklater knows just where to put silliness, levity, heartbreak, and pomp. In essence, this feels like the sum of his best parts. To boil years of footage into a cohesive long form is a feat. Linklater and his team pull off a seamless work. From music supervisor Randal Poster’s lovely alt-rock tunes from the last decade (Coldplay, Wilco, Vampire Weekend, and more), to Shane Kelly and Lee Daniel’s clean, plain 35mm photography, to Sandra Adair’s perfect sew of what could only have been a ton of accumulated footage, Boyhood is fantastically seen through.
Boyhood is a wonderful and warm film, an accessibly human song that becomes more and more plainly profound as it progresses. It feels like a privilege to watch Mason Jr. grow, with the curious satisfaction of seeing someone turn out okay. Like his Before trilogy, Richard Linklater continues a fascination for observing people over time, and in essence, his landmark has emerged.