We come to love those we do not because of a single, shared, life-changing moment, the kind that the movies so often like to depict. Rather, we come to love those we do because we’ve simply been there. We’ve weathered significant time together. The good and the bad. On occasion the remarkable. Mostly the mundane.
Boyhood, from writer-director Richard Linklater, recreates this experience as closely as a movie likely could. In 2002, Linklater cast 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane as Mason, a young boy in Texas who has just started school. Scenes were then filmed in intermittent periods over the next 12 years, until Coltrane reached the age of 18 (and as the rest of the cast aged around him). In the process and now over the course of its nearly three-hour running time, Boyhood chronicles the colossal significance of the everyday. This is the unremarkable story of an average boy who earns our love because we’ve spent 12 years with him in a way that only a parent or sibling can. We’ve been there.
Consider, for instance, the scenes after Mason’s single mother (Patricia Arquette) announces that he and his older sister (Lorelei Linklater) will be moving with her to a new town. No big emotional moment follows. Mason paints over the lines on his door frame marking his growth, as his mom has asked him to do, then peers through the car window to catch a glimpse of the best friend whom he hadn’t been able to tell good-bye. One of the things Boyhood uncannily captures is the way childhood is a series of events that happen not with you, but to you.
A bit later, Mason’s grandmother observes, “Time’s going by,” and indeed it does. Slightly older and sleeping over at the apartment of his dad (Ethan Hawke), Mason asks, with that last little bit of childlike hopefulness left in his voice, “There’s no, like, real magic in the world, right?” We jump ahead a few years and Mason, his mother having remarried a college professor, suffers a buzz cut at his stepdad’s command. Later still, when Mason reaches middle school and we first hear him speak, the drop in his voice is startling. What happened to our little boy?
Boyhood uncannily captures the way childhood is a series of events that happen not with you, but to you.
If Boyhood offered a peculiar acting challenge for Coltrane – and I’ll get to his performance in a bit – it was no less of one for the rest of the cast, who also had to mature as their characters did. Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, is the picture’s most consistently natural child presence as Samantha, Mason’s sister. Pest, confidante, antagonist, ally – she conveys how a sibling can be all of these things at once. Hawke’s rapscallion dad, meanwhile, is a touching variation on Jesse from Linklater’s Before Sunrise series, which also serves as an inventive ode to the passing of time.
If there is a lynchpin performance in Boyhood, however, it’s not given by Hawke or Linklater or even Coltrane. It comes from Arquette as Mason’s mom. She’s always on Mason’s periphery – that’s sort of how it can be for some boys – yet nonetheless the anchor of his life, even through her series of male suitors (later dubbed by Mason a “parade of drunken assholes”). Working mostly at the movie’s edges, Arquette eschews the cliché of the stalwart single mother to create a woman with a fully formed, individual life journey that parallels Mason’s own. Their relationship is a series of convergences and divergences, and when they start to part once again toward the end as Mason prepares to leave for college, the moment is devastating. Though not because of anything particular to that specific scene. The emotional power of Boyhood is cumulative. The tears come with the accrual of years. Boyhood is the essence of life softly played.
There is one sense, however, in which this emphasis on the ordinary is a limitation. Aside from his forays into rotoscoping animation (Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), Linklater has never been a visually distinctive filmmaker. His strengths – and they’re considerable – lie elsewhere. It’s true that he’s placed more emphasis on composition and cinematography as his career has progressed, and to a degree you can even see that in the way that Boyhood inherently traces his evolution as a filmmaker over 12 years (the more arresting imagery is toward the end). Yet does Boyhood ever evoke boyhood as wondrously, as dangerously, as cinematically as, say, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life? Not once, even though Mason’s burgeoning interest in photography would seem to offer opportunities for such visual ingenuity. This isn’t to say Linklater’s technique is incorrect, mind you, just that it didn’t fully stir the cinephile within me.
My only other reservation with the film would be the inescapable fact that Coltrane is serviceable in the lead role. Casting a kid at the age of 6 was the big gamble of the project, as Coltrane could have grown into a brilliant young actor or an awkward disaster. That he’s something in between – an interesting presence, stronger at some ages and in some scenes than others – is probably to be expected and ultimately not all that problematic. In its own way, having a suitable lead performance is just another way of expressing Boyhood’s ordinary-as-extraordinary theme.