Synopsis: Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, Richard Linklater’s BOYHOOD is a groundbreaking story of growing up as seen through the eyes of a child named Mason (a breakthrough performance by Ellar Coltrane), who literally grows up on screen before our eyes. Starring Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason’s parents and newcomer Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha, BOYHOOD charts the rocky terrain of childhood like no other film has before. Snapshots of adolescence from road trips and family dinners to birthdays and graduations and all the moments in between become transcendent, set to a soundtrack spanning the years from Coldplay’s Yellow to Arcade Fire’s Deep Blue. BOYHOOD is both a nostalgic time capsule of the recent past and an ode to growing up and parenting. It’s impossible to watch Mason and his family without thinking about our own journey.
eyelights: the basic concept. the execution. the realistic and relatable situations and dialogues. the naturalistic performances.
eyesores: the familiarity of the situations.
“People always say that we should seize the moment. But I think that the moments seize us.”
Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ is composed of moments. It’s a motion picture about the many incidental elements that shape us, that take us from childhood into adulthood. Filmed over the course of 12 years, it peers into the life of Mason Jr. from the age of 6 until he reaches the age of 18, when he graduates from high school and goes off to college.
Starting in 2002, Linklater, whose greatest claim to fame is his ‘Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight‘ series of films, shot a few days of footage with his actors every year, gradually adapting the story with them to reflect the way that they had changed – most notably his central cast member, Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason Jr., the “boy” in ‘Boyhood’.
It’s an amazing project: rarely does one find such long-term devotion by a cast and crew, let alone for one single project. That they were so committed to this ambitious film and that it actually came to fruition without any incidents is astounding – the industry being what it is, anything could have happened. And that’s not even accounting for what life throws at us.
Frankly, I found it phenomenal to watch Ellar Coltrane (and Lorelei Linklater, who plays his older sister) grow up, morph, on screen. I’m not a parent, and neither are most of my friends, so I didn’t have the opportunity of seeing this first hand. And, anyway, this is kind of like time-lapse photography because he grows up so fast, relatively speaking.
Don’t they always, as they say?
In some ways, it was reminiscent of the ‘Up Series‘, in that we touched base with the characters every so often and saw them progress. Whereas the ‘Up Series’ does it every seven years, this is every year. And this is fiction, which requires far more coordination from the cast and crew – Linklater had to be flexible in his approach.
I was rather impressed with how fluid the picture was, given how much uncertainty must have overshadowed the picture (Linklater had anticipated the worst, even telling Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason Sr., to carry on without him, should he pass away). At no point did we feel that the picture skipped a beat or even missed its mark. It was all woven together neatly.
Linklater has a knack for this sort of thing, evidently. With the ‘Before’ movies, he made dialogues the central figure of his pictures, not action or comedy. He served audiences with real-life moments between two people. In ‘Boyhood’, he similarly peels back the characters’ layers and shows us their simplicity and also their depth. We understand what makes their hearts beat.
Clearly, this wouldn’t have been possible if the cast had not been able to hold up their end of the bargain. But they were. In fact, they are arguably one of the best ensemble cast in recent memory, having created a dynamic between them that stretches over time and that feels entirely real. One can easily believe that they are a family, not cast members.
Of course, I suppose that, in some ways, they were.
Mason, Jr.: When we are first introduced to Mason, he is a six year old boy living with his mom and sister. He likes to mess around, doing graffiti with his best friend. He has barely known his father, who has moved to Alaska. Over time, his interest in art would develop, going from painting to photography. He would also go through the usual rites of passage: drinking, drugs, girls. He’s not especially rebellious, but he does question the status quo and tries to forge his own unique identity. By the end, he faces the future with hope and a zen quality.
Ellar Coltrane is superb in the part. Although this is his first role, and unsurprisingly one of his only acting gigs so far (considering that it took twelve years to make), he acquits himself quite well. In fact, he improves dramatically over time. Whereas I thought he was good but not stellar in the earlier bits, by a third of the way in he delivered his lines in an entirely natural fashion. By the film’s end, he gave us a reserved, thoughtful and confident Mason. He was someone that you’d want to meet and that you’d likely enjoy knowing.
Sam: Our earliest looks at Sam gave us a veritable ball of energy who liked to get her brother in trouble and questioned her mother’s decisions. But she soon mellowed following their first move – one of many. After that she became a more composed individual, no matter what transpired. She came off as a regular girl, aside for her artsy side which took form in the way she dressed and coloured her hair.
Lorelei Linklater was solid throughout, from start to finish. Like Coltrane, this is pretty much her only part thus far in her career, but she did a marvelous job – no doubt thanks to the coaching of Richard, her father. Her Sam was sensitive, but spunky. She was entirely grounded and felt like she fit in with that family. I’d be curious to see how she does in other roles, should she pursue acting.
Olivia: A single mom, Olivia has a tendency to make poor life choices. She never planned to be a parent, but she got pregnant right out of high school and struggled to stay afloat from that point onward. She would continuously pick unsuitable partners, starting with Mason Jr and Sam’s father, and later with other men – whose penchant for drinking would have repercussions on the whole family. But she would learn and eventually break out of her patterns.
Patricia Arquette was a surprise for two reasons. Firstly, I didn’t expect her in it. I purposely read precious little about the picture before seeing it, knowing its base concept and that’s about it. I never would have imagined her in a concept piece like this one. Secondly, I’ve never considered her a particularly great actress. However, after the first few moments, she ditched her typically weak delivery for a more sure-footed one.
Mason, Sr.: The least likeable character of our core cast, Mason, Sr. starts of as a self-involved man-child who doesn’t take his parental responsibilities particularly seriously. If anything, he’s a buddy dad who only wants to play and be cool. He also makes the typical mistake of trying to buy his children’s affection with gifts. But his chief focus is making music, not parenting, and he self-indulgently showcases his “ability” at every turn. He would gradually become more of a traditional role model after starting another family.
I’m no great fan of Ethan Hawke. I despised him during his pretentious pretty boy phase, in the early part of his career, and I now dislike seeing his ratty, worn face with those ghastly brown teeth. But his screen presence is okay; he doesn’t posture like he used to, which is an improvement. And his persona, no matter how much I dislike it, is quite appropriate for Mason, Sr. Still, I appreciate that he’s been involved in Linklater’s films: he’s not entirely vacuous and full of crap, after all. I can start to forget ‘Reality Bites’ and such nonsense.
Beyond its concept and execution, I really enjoyed watching ‘Boyhood’ because it reminded me of a boy I once knew, one who is becoming a man now. I was fortunate enough to see him grow up through his teen years, and I could see some parallels between Mason, Jr. and him. I don’t think I will ever watch this movie without thinking of him.
But I also loved the small highlights that Linklater tied into the little moments, such as the walk that Mason and a girl friend have after school (done in one long shot, à la ‘Before’), the talk about contraception that Mason Sr. has with his squeamish kids, the emotional bonds that Mason, Jr. makes with his first girlfriend, …etc.
I also liked the self-reflections that the characters make: when Mason Jr talks about his breakup with his dad, how he saw it as more meaningful than just young love, when Olivia makes the realization that her life is just a series of small unglamourous struggles, or when Mason Sr. says he was 15 years late in becoming the person that was expected of him.
‘Boyhood’ is likely going to speak to adults more. It’s a picture that takes a look back not just on boyhood but also on adulthood in tandem. Having both perspectives will help audiences appreciate the lives that are portrayed on screen – they will be able to relate on many more levels. We’re all living these lives, directly and indirectly.
In the end, there’s really not much to ‘Boyhood’. It’s not filled with action or melodrama; it’s just life.
“I just thought there would be more”
Sometimes, though, that’s more than plenty.
Post scriptum: My enjoyment of ‘Boyhood’ was approximately an 8.0, but I have to give it an extra half-notch for the execution, which required some serious forethought and skill. Well done!
Date of viewing: August 9, 2014