By Ed Symkus
More Content Now
I sat down at an early screening of “Boyhood” knowing only three things: It was written and directed by Richard Linklater, it starred Patricia Arquette and the running time was just over two and a half hours. I hadn’t seen a preview trailer, or a list of who else was in it. It’s the way I like to experience movies, ever ready to be pleased, surprised, often, alas, disappointed.
This time I was pleased and surprised and riveted and deeply moved. No one told me the premise of the film was based on a “gimmick,” this one being that Linklater had planned, from the start, to tell the fictional story of a Texas family by shooting little pieces of it for a few days each year over a period of 12 years. It wasn’t till about a quarter of the way in that I realized what was going on. There I was, completely ensconced in the tale of a woman (Arquette) whose slacker-dreamer husband (Ethan Hawke) had abandoned her and her two kids, Mason and Samantha (newcomer Ellar Coltrane, and the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater). Then it hit me that every time the story jumped forward, there were the same actors, also having jumped forward, year by year. This wasn’t any makeup trick. This was the real thing. I thought, “This is amazing! Can the director and cast keep this up?” Yes, they could, and did, with flying colors.
It’s the kind of ambitious idea that till now has been relegated to the documentary genre. But even though this film looks and feels like real life, it’s – with some improvisation added in during the rehearsal process – completely scripted and acted.
It’s, as the title suggests, a history of Mason growing up, along with everyone around him growing up, growing older, maturing and changing, both physically and emotionally. There’s no one big event here, but there are plenty of small big ones, eventually forming into the arc of Mason entering grade school and finishing high school.
The film runs across the emotional spectrum from happy to heartbreaking, slowing down to let viewers know just where these people are in their lives and what they’re doing, then adding in an extra layer of reality and a sense of time passing by peppering the script with actual events – a casual mention of the war in Iraq, a visit to a late-night book release party for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince,” a snatch of TV showing Roger Clemens pitching for the Astros, people putting up Obama-Biden signs.
But Linklater keeps bringing it back to the ever-changing family. It’s fun to see the sweet, young Mason getting into little bickering matches with his older sister, and there will be knowing nods from viewers that are parents when they see how their mom tries to keep peace in the household. But Linklater isn’t afraid to take uncomfortable risks, and he doesn’t flinch about presenting ugly abuse in the romantic relationships that mom needs to have in her life. He also shows the struggles the kids’ estranged dad goes through, knowing that he’s been an irresponsible, bad father, but hoping, sometimes naively, to make things better.
Time in the film zooms by. Situations go from good to bad to worse to much better. There are boyfriends and girlfriends and marriages and separations and flights to safety. An odd contrast and comparison is that as the two kids mature, so does dad. Yet it’s probably mom who goes through the most changes – enduring a constant struggle, somehow making things work out, always on the alert for the next challenge in her life.
The focus is on Mason, and Ellar Coltrane is an absolute wonder to watch, whether he’s a 7-year-old staring at clouds in the sky, or a 15-year-old, starting to wonder about the meaning of life. But the toughest part belongs to Arquette, who turns in one of the finest, most nuanced performances of her career. Yet everyone single actor in this small, big-hearted film is terrific and comes across as completely natural.
In my mind, Linklater could easily and successfully have gone on for another year or two, but his cut-off point here works very well. Best of all, he manages to reward viewers by ending it all on an upbeat note.
Ed Symkus covers movies for More Content Now.
Written and directed by Richard Linklater
With Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
Movie review: Richard Linklater crafts a unique movie in Boyhood’
By Ed Symkus