Directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, and Ethan Hawke
I am unsure whether Boyhood is one of the greatest films ever made. I am certain Boyhood could be many times better. But I agree with film critic Joe Williams in saying Boyhood is “the closest thing to a lived life that fictional cinema has yet produced.”
Like most great films, the premise is simple. Boyhood is the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages six to eighteen, circa 2002-2013. He is a boy growing up in Texas and this is his life.
You’ve heard the buzz. Linklater charted his characters in real time, shooting the same actors over twelve years. His star Ellar Coltrane and his daughter Lorelei Linklater (who plays Mason’s older sister) were both just young children when they began.
Through the film, we see their baby fat transform into stubble and acne. We see the adults become fat and gray. Boyhood indeed features the best depiction of physical aging in cinematic history.
Here, I should make a point: Boyhood is just as much about a family as it is about a boy, as one’s childhood is often just as much at home as it is not. Mason is the child of Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), both loving but unprepared teens when they had their first child. After his parents’ separation, Mason lives with his mother, who cycles through relationships with self-pitying drunks all worse than his father. Then again, Mason Sr. seems such an eternal bachelor that we question whether his generosity of spirit could ever come in more than small doses.
To be sure, Mason is the film’s protagonist; we see his parents only through his eyes. And yet, we are wiser than him. His mother suffers most in the film, and when Mason goes off to college at the film’s conclusion, we come to terms with how much she has missed of life and how little anyone understands this. The scene is the most singularly moving of the film.
Certainly, to condense a childhood in a film is a tall order, even with a healthy 2 hours and 44 minutes.
I don’t believe any detail or observation on boyhood offered in the film is novel. There’s awkwardness. There’s bullying. There’s stupid, dangerous things. There’s a search for identity. There’s drugs. There’s girls.
Boyhood is not particularly visually stunning either. And filming a life epic is not as novel as many would like to paint it to be (see the Up series by Michael Apted or the Apu trilogy by Satyajit Ray) nor as arduous, as Linklater himself admits. (You just have to meet once a year.)
No, the masterstroke of the film is that its sensitive ideas are expressed without sentimentality. Time is not demarcated in the film. So instead, it moves fluently, aging the people, the language, the music, the politics, the settings, the technology, and the culture all at once without incident or warning, as in life. No single change will command your attention. No single event will be tragic enough to inspire tears. But taken together, it is the best depiction to date of the worst thing that will ever happen to most privileged Americans: the end of innocence.
Let me reassure you: you will not cry while watching this film. On the contrary, you will smile for 2 hours and 44 minutes straight. Many, many, many trademark millennial moments will be glossed over. But unlike Europeans (who are not as hysterical over the film), we are a generation of suckers for the slightest irony or nostalgia.
One throwback to classic Britney will have you grinning from ear to ear. Then you’ll ask yourself how long ago Cobra Starship was popular. You’ll relive the memories of a first kiss and a birds and the bees talk. Harry Potter and sneaking out. You’ll be a kid again, for the moment.
And then the movie will be over and you’ll try not to wonder where the time went. Try not to wonder if you enjoyed it while it lasted, or if there’s even a point to a joy so fleeting, so transient. And you’ll wonder anyway and it will weigh on your heart.