To call Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood ambitious would be, to be honest, underselling it. The existence of this project and its central conceit (that Linklater had been filming it in short pieces every year since the early 2000’s) started to generate buzz four or five years ago, and that buzz grew to a roar as the film was completed and debuted at this year’s Sundance FIlm Festival. Met with rapturous approval in Park City, the film has now begun its slow release in theaters across America. It is difficult to describe the anticipation surrounding a project like this, with one of the great American directors at the top of his craft shooting a fiercely personal movie in such a nontraditional way, but for a certain subsection of the film-going community, nothing else on the 2014 release stale could compare.
The center of all of this attention is Ellar Coltrane, the boy of Boyhood. Coltrane’s Mason Jr. is the eyes through which Linklater will show the world over the course of twelve years, aging in real time due to their filmmaking gambit. A son to divorced parents, Mason lives with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter).Their father (Ethan Hawke) is not around all that often, beginning the film in Alaska before he moves back to Texas in an attempt to reconnect with his kids. As he grows up, Mason is forced to deal with many of the trials and tribulations that can come with being the youngest child in a divorced family. Perceived neglect, multiple moves,multiple schools and multiple new paramours for both parents become run of the mill. These events mark a skeleton of the structure of the film, though Linklater is not at all concerned with following a traditional story structure. Life does not play out in a traditional story structure.
Linklater makes plenty of interesting choices over the course of Boyhood’s near three hours. Most fascinating is his choice to revel in the fads of the time. This film is a living time capsule, whether it is in the way it presents its soundtrack (the first sounds heard are the opening notes of Coldplay’s “Yellow”) and the advances in technology that occurred in real life through these years. There is never any question about the time period from scene to scene. The film is almost obstinate in the way it dates itself, but remarkably the choice seems to reinforce the every-day feel of the proceedings. He has created a film that is timeless in its timely-ness. As the years pass, less of the film-going audience will be able to directly relate to the Gameboy Advances and Blink 182 songs, but the central thesis, the look into a boy’s path from years 6 to 18 will always be relevant.
Setting the film in the time that it happens also allows Linklater to place Mason in a more modern family setting. It is clear that both Mason and his sister are more the product of young lust than young love. However, this is not designed as an excuse or a shortcut to emotional distress the way divorces are so often used in film and television. It is simply the world in which he lives. This decision is all about verisimilitude, considering the preponderance of divorces in today’s society, it makes sense to present a story like this that shows how the children can still turn out just fine. It is refreshing that Linklater did not feel the need to plot things up and pepper high drama throughout the story to keep the audience engaged. He knows that a strong cast simply presenting life as it is, with the small moments often superseding the large, would be enough. That is the genius of Boyhood. It never tries to be more than it is. Granted, what it is represents what it means to grow up, and nothing can be more important than that. The work of Arquette and Hawke goes a long way in establishing that sense of reality. As the only two stars in a sea of children and unknowns, they are the rocks to which the cast is anchored. Admittedly, it is also quite fun to watch them age as well; Hawke notably looks so young at the film’s outset, and following him as he slowly evolves from Before Sunset Ethan Hawke to Before Midnight Ethan Hawke is just as delightful as watching Coltrane grow into a man.
Boyhood is certainly not the first coming of age film, nor is it the first to take place over multiple years. It is undeniable, though, that it feels unlike anything else that has ever been attempted in the genre. Linklater’s long production cycle may seem like a gimmick on the page, but its resonance on the screen is irresistible. At times it feels like a greatest hits album, with scenes evoking sections from Slacker, Dazed and Confused or the Before trilogy. Colorful characters abound in this loving look at childhood in Texas, with none more captivating than young Mr. Coltrane. With a confident and stirring performance from Arquette providing the emotional heavy lifting, and Hawke at the top of his game (as is so often the case when he collaborates with Linklater), Boyhood represents the very best cinema has to offer. Ebullient, touching and life-affirming, it is a cinematic warm blanket and mug of hot cocoa on a cold winter’s morning. It is the sort of film-going experience that should never have to end.