While Texan director Richard Linklater has done his best work following his characters doing very little but living their lives, from the twenty-somethings in Slacker to the teens of Dazed and Confused or the lovers in his Before trilogy, none of it really compares to the achievement that is Boyhood, a stunning and intimate portrait of life itself.
Filmed at yearly intervals over a 12 year period, Linklater’s film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age seven through 19, watching him grow and evolve over time from a quiet child of divorce to a smart, sensitive young man on the cusp of adulthood. We also see how his family matures over the years, with older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linkater) developing from a precocious nine-year-old kid to a wry, intelligent 20-year-old; mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) struggling with a series of failed relationships but finding her passion teaching at the local college; and father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) gradually becoming less of a deadbeat and eventually starting a new family of his own.
Watching these people mature and change over time is in itself a moving experience, even as Linklater avoids the obvious milestones in a family’s life. There are no weddings or funerals, in fact often big events happen off screen. We realise the passage of time by a change in a character’s haircut or certain technological or pop culture touchstones – Harry Potter is a fixture throughout – and the film just moves through it all fluidly, with Linklater somehow managing to keep a consistent tone year after year. The only really big, dramatic moment comes with the meltdown of Olivia’s second marriage as her manipulative, drunken new husband becomes violent.
The majority of the film exists in the day-to-day, following Mason mundane events like camping trips and high school parties, rather than the usual first kiss and first beer milestones most films focus on. It all feels entirely natural and fluid, like a memory, to the point that later in the film, when Mason is a lanky teenager with pierced ears and girl troubles, it’s hard to remember what he was like earlier in the film.
It’s this passage of time feel that makes the film so quietly powerful. When Olivia breaks down into tears on the day Mason moves out for college, it’s moving in a way that’s heightened by the nature of the film. Using the same actors keeps a continuity and an authenticity that makes for a stronger connection to the characters and their respective arcs so when we see Olivia – who we’ve watched try her best to raise her kids despite a series of ropey relationships – empty her nest and experience all the emotion that goes along with that, we’re right there with her.
In the lead role, Coltrane is likeable and though his acting becomes more self-conscious and reserved as he becomes a teenager, it fits the point he’s at in life and feels like a natural progression of his character. Lorelei Linklater is a more outgoing and lively presence than Coltrane and her Samantha is a welcome antagonist to the younger Mason, and a warm, witty presence later in the film.
While the younger actors are fantastic, they don’t quite have the same knack for Linklater’s stoner philosophising the way Ethan Hawke does, which is understandable given Hawke’s ongoing creative relationship with Linklater. Here he slots in comfortably, perfectly at home with this kind of material and always extremely charming despite his obvious failings as a father in the early goings of the film.
To call Boyhood a coming-of-age story is to do it a disservice. It feels like so much more than that, something much bigger and more important. It may lack in drama in a traditional sense but its 165-minute running time flies by, much like the lives it chronicles. In focussing on the smaller moments, the cumulative power of it all is remarkable and unlike any other cinematic experience likely to be seen again any time soon.