Much has made of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood: the fact that it was filmed over twelve years, thus showing the actors age in real time, and the near unanimous praise (Kenneth Turan thought it was merely a good movie, and almost had to apologize for it). But what I found interesting about it was not so much the fact that it allowed us to see a boy actually age from six to eighteen, but that instead of a conventional narrative it was like flipping through a photo album, or scanning one’s own memory of childhood. In that way it was oddly compelling, even though there were few moments of actual conflict.
Boyhood is the story of one boy, Mason, who as the film starts is six years old. He has an older sister and a single mother, who signals to a boyfriend early on that her children come first. Mason’s father has been gone to Alaska for a while (the film is set entirely in Texas), but he comes back and becomes the kind of single dad who struggles to keep a place in his children’s lives. There’s a great scene when he tells the kids he doesn’t just want small talk, he wants real conversations.
Linklater, instead of making this a highlight reel of a boy’s life, instead makes it like a patchwork quilt. Some important events are there, but others happen off-screen. Very often we get scenes that have no more relevance than that they are part of life, random events that shape us. I was particularly drawn to a scene when Mason is bullied in the boy’s room. We never see him bullied again, and the kids who do it don’t appear again. But it is there, as if we were roaming his subconscious and stumbled upon it. We also see a scene in which he hangs with older boys who brag about their sexual conquests. Mason tells them he has had sex, but we don’t know if he’s telling the truth–the loss of his virginity does not happen on screen.
It is kind of gasp-inducing to watch this film when a transition takes place. Mason goes from a cute little boy to an awkward teen in the space of less than three hours. I’m not a parent, but I gather this is about how fast a child’s life appears to be to some parents. At the end of the film, when Mason is a shaggy, ear-ringed college student, we almost have forgotten how he was as a boy. This is also true with his sister (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelai). While the dad, Ethan Hawke, doesn’t age physically much, Patrica Arquette, as the mom, does, changing hairstyles, putting on weight, and acquiring more weariness of life.
What “plot” there is in the film mostly concerns the marital life of the parents. Arquette marries two men–one a professor of hers, and then a student. Both, after appearing to be great stepdads, become problem drinkers. We don’t see the split between her and husband number two, only when he confronts Mason after the latter comes home late. But we can hear the echo of the first scene–she puts her kids first.
Arquette is great, but Hawke has a trickier role, if that’s possible. He’s not the deadbeat dad, or the irresponsible dad. How great it is to see a divorced father actually being good to his children. He grows over the film–selling the GTO that seems to define him, getting married to a religious woman, having another child, and driving a mini-van. I’ll be surprised if both Arquette and Hawke aren’t nominated for Oscars.
As Mason is the extraordinary Ellar Coltrane. Linklater had to roll the dice on him. Not only did he have to believe that the kid wouldn’t back out (his daughter wanted to–she asked him to kill her character off) but that he would grow into a decent actor. Now, Coltrane doesn’t give a fantastic performance. He’s not a great actor–I don’t expect him to go on with an acting career of any substance, but at all times he seems to grasp what Linklater is trying to do, and is absolutely convincing.
I wouldn’t give this film a 100, it’s current score on Metacritic–it’s not even the best film of the year (it’s still The Grand Budapest Hotel for me) but Boyhood is a remarkable achievement, and unlike anything I’ve ever seen.
My grade for Boyhood: A-.