Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is everything it’s been cracked up to be: an altogether extraordinary, one-of-a-kind endeavor that represents American filmmaking at its best. Chronicling the unpredictable path of a Texas boy’s life from the ages of 6 to 18 (along with the other members of his family), it eschews cliché and melodrama to explore the ups and downs of an ordinary life, dotted with dreams and disappointments. In a remarkable casting coup, Ellar Coltrane as Mason commands our attention from start to finish.
There are moments in the film when, conditioned by Hollywood movies, I expected an accident to take place. That’s what might have happened in a conventional film, but Linklater isn’t interested in that kind of bullet-point storytelling. He wants to explore the inherent drama in everyday life: the trials of a single parent, the awkwardness of being the new kid in school, the trauma of living with an alcoholic, an adolescent’s search for identity, and so much more. The arc of the story is incredibly ambitious, which only sinks in when the film is over and you realize how much ground you’ve covered. The emotional aftershock is daunting. (I know how I felt, as a parent, wiping a tear from my eye; I can only guess how a younger person might react.)
What could have been merely a gimmick—watching a boy grow up, year by year—is instead the inspiration for a rich and sharp-eyed movie that is seamless and organic. We’re never aware of Linklater’s camera or its ubiquitous presence: everything we see seems genuine and spontaneous, from Mason’s back-seat squabbles with his sister, when they’re young and rambunctious, to his extreme discomfort when a barber shears off his stylish long hair. There isn’t a false note in the picture.
Despite its title, Linklater’s screenplay is as much about Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette), who struggles to make something of herself, his biological father (Ethan Hawke), who’s determined to make up for his long absence and be a presence in his children’s lives, and his older sister (played by the filmmaker’s daughter Lorelei Linklater), who faces the same series of familial disruptions as her sibling.
But there’s no denying that Ellar Coltrane dominates the film as Mason. He’s a daydreamer at age 6 and a reluctant student in his teens: his thoughts and passions lie outside the classroom. He’s a natural nonconformist and we get to witness how this trait blossoms in him as he becomes a true individual. We also see the price he pays.
How many movies dare to address the Big Issues of life through the prism of ordinary events? How many filmmakers would try to take on so much in a single film? Linklater has long since earned his reputation as an original thinker, but this achievement is in a class by itself.
Boyhood is a uniquely rewarding experience.