Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is that rare American movie that restores your faith in the power of film as a narrative art form. Unlike most relationship-driven, hipsterish, self-indulgent tales of the privileged classes that seem to be the bread and butter of many American independent films today, “Boyhood” is about people you and I know, about experiences we can easily identify with. It’s about the little details that make life worth living and about how time, unlike the Bob Dylan song, never passes slowly.
Shot between 2001 and 2013 with the same cast and crew, the concept behind the film is narratively simple and technically complex: to follow the life of a Texas boy from childhood to adulthood in real time. Linklater and his actors would meet every year to discuss the shape the story would take and then the director would put the script together and shoot it.
The film focuses on Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), whom we first meet as a seven-year-old, laying on the grass staring at the sky. His recently divorced mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is trying to raise him and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) the best she can. She dreams of securing a college degree as bills keep piling up. Her ex-husband, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) has just returned home from Alaska; his visitation rights allow him to spend time with his two kids every two weeks. Samantha pesters and torments her brother the way only siblings can. And Mason Jr. observes and absorbs all, as the world opens its doors to him.
This 12-year journey sees Mason Jr. and his family move from town to town in Texas as Olivia pursues her dreams, and marries two men with serious drinking problems (one a college professor, the other an Iraq war veteran who deep down is a really good man). Mason Sr. spends as much time with his kids as possible, no matter where they live, taking them to baseball games or bowling. Mason Sr. eventually does his own growing up, marrying into a good Christian family and exchanging his Mustang GTO for a four-wheel family van.
Mason Jr. and Samantha age before our very eyes, their bodies changing in 165 minutes without the aid of any digital trickery. They make friends and lose them, they fall in love with classmates and suffer their fair share of heartbreaks. They are both read excerpts of the first Harry Potter novel before going to bed and years later both stand in line for the midnight release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” They hang out with Dad’s musician friends and Mason Jr. takes his first girlfriend to Austin to check out the music scene. And then there’s the uncertainty of what will happen after high school.
The manipulation of our perception of time is one of “Boyhood”’s many pleasures. The film’s rhythm is so languid, so lifelike, that time almost becomes imperceptible until an object or an action reminds us of its passing. “Boyhood” is the logical conclusion to Linklater’s exploration of how we perceive real time on the big screen, a concern that, until this movie, I felt Linklater had explored to the fullest in his “Before” trilogy. If anything, “Boyhood” feels epic in scale next to those three films, even though it’s as intimate as they are.
“Boyhood” lacks a conventional three-act structure and is so much better for it. It is full of recognizable details: Mason Jr. and his friends ogling the lingerie section of a department store catalog or, as a teen, indulging in some fake sexual braggadocio with friends; the little notes that students pass each other in the classroom; even practicing sharpshooting in an open field. The scenes of that college professor’s violent alcohol-fueled rages are the closest the film comes to developing an uneasy tension; but even then, they avoid any cheap melodramatics.
Linklater’s characteristic generosity towards his characters is once again evident. He doesn’t pass judgment, he just lets them be and act. Most of the people Mason Jr. encounters throughout these 12 years are good, decent folk, acting with the best of intentions. Some may lose their way and some may be beyond redemption. These are characters we wouldn’t mind spending more time with.
“Boyhood” is as much a story about Mason Jr.’s growing up as it is about his parents. Hawke is effortless and honest as Mason Sr.; his character could, in fact, be a relative of the “Before” trilogy’s Jesse. And while critics are rightfully praising Coltrane’s equally naturalistic performance, to me Patricia Arquette was a revelation. In her best role to date, Arquette portrays Olivia as a loving, resilient, strong yet susceptible woman. Her final scene with Mason Jr., as he prepares to go to college, is heartbreaking.
“Boyhood” is a wise film, noble even, one that deserves and needs to be seen over and over to fully appreciate each and every one of its accomplishments. It is the best American film of the year.