“Boyhood” is a long film about a small family that’s been epic in its planning and grand in its execution. Richard Linklater’s unpretentious, nuanced story about a young boy’s journey in life from childhood to college took twelve years to make. Every year, he shot for a few weeks using the same core principals (Ellar Coltrane as the boy, Mason Jr., Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha – she’s the director’s daughter, who grew so fed up with the part that she begged dad to kill her off – Patricia Arquette as mother Olivia and Ethan Hawke as the absent dad, Mason).
Linklater’s not the first to have produced a movie on such vast – time – scale. Michael Apted did it with “Up” (since 1964, he’s been visiting and filming the same subjects every seven years) and Michael Winterbottom shot “Everyday” over the course of five years.
The focus of “Boyhood” centers around the lives of Mason Jr. and sister Samantha and their two –estranged- parents. Mom is a deeply responsible, loving mother who will do whatever it takes to protect and care for her family. Dad is a lovely, caring father who is also an irresponsible, serially unemployed drifter. These two extremes map out the DNA of their kids’ emotional world.
Mom’s sense of responsibility edges her toward the proffered care of what turns out to be two disastrous relationships with men who confuse the ideal of responsible authority with abusive authoritarianism. No such problem with Mason, the fun-loving dad, who we see slowly evolve from cool, guitar playing dad to responsible, employed family-man driving a responsible family sedan. And in the process, he becomes a bit boring.
No wonder, young Mason Jr. grows up feeling confused: both secure and loved but torn about whatever life’s grand scheme is meant to be; and importantly, bent on trying to be true to himself and not to someone else’s idea of what he should be. As he matures away from the draconian authoritarianism of his two abusive, alcoholic step fathers into the quiet teenage rebel (very quiet – he wears an earring and paints his fingernails purple), his key question becomes one of existential –and teenage- angst: what’s it all about? Director Linklater offers up the answer via Olivia, the mom, in a tender scene just as Mason Jr. is preparing to leave home for college. She has a restrained breakdown and sobs, “I just thought there would be more”. The film suggest, against a backdrop of bible thumping Southern preaching, that there really isn’t more. This is it. This is what life is. Make of it as you may…but don’t expect it to be in the service of some super or supra natural authority.
Linklater shapes the narrative of this easy flowing, richly layered story via a series of -mainly – quietly observed moments. There are a few moments of raised drama, mainly via confrontations with Olivia’s drunk husbands, but by and large, the life we’re invited to eavesdrop on avoids the thespian hysteria and melodrama of, say, “August: Osage County”. He is a director who has offered us in the past stories seen through an observing eye (as he did with those three other magnificent Ethan Hawke movies: “Before Sunrise”, “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight”). As a result, the slow build of character over the twelve years of his tale feels almost unscripted; almost as if he were simply recording the “real life” of a few people and the world as it changes around them.
What certainly changes, and there was no way multiple actors or prosthetics could have accomplished this, was the people. Over the course of the three or so hours of the movie, we’re with Mason Jr. and Samantha as their bodies, as much as their characters, evolve and change. Even Patricia Arquette morphs from young and slim to older and fatter and then back to slimmer again, almost as if her body were paralleling the tribulations of her character.
The wonder of it all was how Linklater managed to sustain his concentration for so long and with young inexperienced actors who keep us convinced over the duration of the story. There is clearly a meta-narrative here in the symbiotic relationship between the actors and the script. Mason Jr.’s character is one that’s very low keyed, so that this non-actor isn’t made to stretch; Linklater’s sleight of hand places the bigger set piece ‘acting roles’ in the more experienced, seasoned veterans. But as the child becomes a man, Linklater places more and more narrative responsibility on his shoulders, and the family story becomes more focused on Mason Jr as protagonist.
All in all, this is a rounded, mature, satisfying film; well worth the price of entry