In 2002, Richard Linklater began a film project that centered on six-year old Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the young son of a divorced couple. Mom (Patricia Arquette) is raising the boy, and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), alone but his dad (Ethan Hawke) shows up at inconvenient time driving into town in his beloved jet black 1972 Pontiac GTO. This does not sound too remarkable until you realize that the cast and crew, in front of and behind the camera, have been working on “Boyhood” for 12 years!
Anyone familiar with Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” trilogy knows that the man is patient, very patient. He began that project in 1995 and revisited his characters, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, again in 2004’s “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” in 2013. Those three works show the long term commitment of the director and his stars.
“Boyhood,” though, represents a quantum leap in commitment. The writer-director is joined in his 12 year journey with his regular–player Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette and, remarkably, the dedication of six-year old Ellar Coltrane and eight-year old Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter). Over the last 12 years, the cast and crew assembled once a year for several days of shooting to continue the telling of Mason’s saga of growing up.
We are used to films that span a long time, replacing the younger actor with an older actor assuming the role as the character ages. Not so here. What we see is in “Boyhood” are the veteran actors aging naturally over the years. But, watching the two kids grow up – actually grow up! - through the course of 12 years, in 166 minutes, is something not seen in fictional film. The only other works showing such dedication to a project is Michael Apted’s documentary “Up” series. Beginning in 1970, and every seven years after, he gathered his subjects (14 British school kids) together and we watch them grow and change. That project, though, consisted of individual films released every seven years (“21 Up,” “28 Up,” “35 Up”, etcetera, to 2012’s “56 Up.”
“Boyhood” is something quite different and original to the art of filmmaking. We get to watch, in less than three hours, young Mason (and Samantha) grow from child to adolescence to young adults graduating high school. Each year, we see the physical changes that the kids go through, as well as the emotional ups and downs of growing up. Everyone in the large cast, not just the four principals, does a marvelous job investing in their characters for however long the director needed – again, sometimes for years.
Richard Linklater and company have created a true original on several levels. We live with the family and empathize with them in many ways. It is almost as if the audience is a part of the family in “Boyhood.” I give it an A.
Siblings 6 year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and 9 year-old Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei) have the usual up and down relationship in a quiet Texas suburb where they live with their single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette, "True Romance"). A move to Houston reconnects them with their dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke, "Before Midnight"), a struggling musician returned from a stint in Alaska whom Olivia regards as irresponsible. But over the course of twelve years, dad will turn into a family man with a minivan while mom becomes a respected college professor who's struggled through two more failed marriages. As he sets off for college, we've shared in the moments - rites of passage, the everyday and the joys and sorrows of Mason's "Boyhood."
Writer/director Richard Linklater has observed the influence of time with his "Before" trilogy, but his latest is something else again, an unparalleled production (backed by IFC Films) filmed yearly over the course of twelve years using the same central cast. It's an extraordinary achievement, one which will have you reflecting on your own life, all those moments big and small, many of which represented crossroads you may not have seen at the time.
School is an important element as we see Olivia's frustration over her obviously bright young son's failure to turn in homework to her own attempts at betterment with college courses (which lead her to her second husband, Professor Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella, "Infamous," terrific)). There is a wonderful scene of one of those teachers who make a difference when Mr. Turlington (Tom McTigue, "The Descendants") advises Mason that his love of the darkroom must be balanced with an adherence to assignments if he ever hopes to make a living with photography. Later, Mason and his first real girlfriend, April (Jessie Tilton), will get a taste of college life when they stay at Sam's dorm in Austin (April, however, is gone by Mason's Senior Prom).
Some people, like Grandma (Libby Villari, "Boys Don't Cry"), are around for Mason's whole childhood, while others, like step siblings Mindy (Jamie Howard) and Randy Welbrock (Andrew Villarreal), become close for a time, then vanish when Olivia gathers her kids to get away from alcoholism and abuse. The focus on Mason's parents gradually fades as he begins to become more and more his own person, but they're always there and ever changing, dad remarrying and settling as an insurance agent (while still keeping a hand in music through his former roommate, who's made it bigger than he ever could), his new in-laws repping a new set of 'grandparents' while mom counters her career success with another bad, brief marriage.
The film makes us aware of just how much time we spend driving around. It's dotted with events like the excitement over the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter, camping trips with dad who is a bigger influence in Mason's life than Olivia may realize (Hawke is heartbreaking in a late scene, telling his son that had she had more patience with him, he would have turned into the man she needed). Their messy but effective parenting is cast against the cruel and embarrassing behavior of Welbrock, who gets his kids to buy his booze when he's too drunk to get out of the car or Olivia's third husband, an Iraq vet who tries to bully Mason into respecting his position (when that marriage fails, Olivia has a scene parallel to Hawke's, telling her son she thought there would be more to life). We see the far reaching effects of small kindnesses when Enrique (Roland Ruiz, "Contraband"), a man who fixes Olivia's sewer pipe, spies her years later as a restaurant manager, having followed her encourage advice to seek an education.
Music covers the years, beginning with Sam's annoying her brother with a spirited cover of Brittany's "Oops, I Did It Again," to Coldplay and Arcade Fire songs and Mason Sr.'s birthday gift to his now teenaged son of his own 'Black Album,' an arranged compilation of solo Beatles' numbers.
The finale is a moment of grace, Mason accepting an invitation on his first day at college from three kids one can sense may be life long friends to go on a hike. Out in nature, one is reminded of Mason Sr., and after the kids smoke some pot and converse on life's larger meanings we hear Mason's last words, 'It's always right now,' a sentiment that encompasses Linklater's entire movie. "Boyhood" might not stay with you in its entirety, much of it evaporating while certain moments stand out. How just like life.
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