Late in “Boyhood”, Ellar Coltrane’s teenage Mason is looking for purpose when he asks his father, played by Ethan Hawke, “What’s the point, of anything? Everything?” Hawke’s character, Mason Sr., can only chuckle, “Everything? I sure as shit don’t know. Neither does anybody else”
Questions of life’s meaning and the directions our lives take are deep at the heart of “Boyhood,” a nearly three-hour film from writer/director Richard Linklater (“Dazed and Confused, “School of Rock”, “Before Sunrise”) that is by far the best of the year thus far.
We see Mason grow over a 12-year span from age six to 18 and see how he and the rest of his family develop over time. Coming-of-age films are nothing unique to the point of becoming a cliché, but “Boyhood” was created in a way I’m fairly certain has never been attempted on film.
In telling a fictional story of a child over 12 years, Linklater shot in real time, parcelling out a few days each year to create the film. Coltrane, along with Hawke, Patricia Arquette (playing Mason’s mother) and the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater (as his older sister), was cast in 2002 and played the same role for more than a decade, aging along with his character.
We see Mason go from a six-year old fighting with his older sister to a mildly rebellious pre-teen obsessed with video games to a high school graduate embarking out on his own for his freshman year of college.
To say there were risks involved in completing this film is putting it mildly. Who was to say when Coltrane was cast as a child that he would develop into an actor capable of carrying a film over the course of 12 years? He could’ve simply decided that acting wasn’t for him over time or Linklater and the rest of the filmmakers could’ve grown disenchanted with such a drawn-out project.
Not only has that risk been rewarded, the film has exceeded expectations. A fan of Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, I remember seeing vague references to a mysterious and ambitous film Linklater, Hawke and the rest were working on over a long period of time far off the Hollywood radar.
I think many expected an interesting experimental film that would fail to gain much attention. Instead “Boyhood” is being touted as an early contender for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.
The film starts off slowly. Like most of Linklater’s films, it’s a dialogue-heavy script with an improvisational tone and the early scenes, where Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater are still very young, have a clunkiness that makes them feel overly staged. Richard Linklater has stated in interviews the story developed organically over the years as Coltrane aged, and it’s clear in the early moments that the plot is still being fleshed out.
Slowly but surely though, it builds up a rhythm, to the point where it feels less like a scripted film and simply a documentation of a life unfolding on its natural course. Individual moments in the film don’t appear at first to carry much weight, but when taken as a whole, they increase in significance. This is evident in a late scene where Mason drives across a Texas desert set to Family of the Year’s “Hero” after a bittersweet moment with his mother that carries a poignancy and beauty you realize has been earned over the past three hours.
I’ve come to believe there’s maybe no other filmmaker as adept as Linklater at creating engrossing films that for the most part are simply people talking to one another. Linklater’s “Before” trilogy, which also stars Hawke, is a (hopefully) ongoing series of three films simply documenting two people in a romantic relationship talking to each other and it’s hypnotic. These films have little to no plot, but the realness and intimacy he and his actors create make that irrelevant.
Linklater creates the same effect in “Boyhood”. The film is basically structured as a series of very long scenes of characters having conversations with one another. Mason taking a camping trip with his father, receiving advice on his future from a photography teacher in a high school dark room or questioning our culture’s reliance on social media on a drive with his girlfriend – these are all extended moments with little-to-no action that could have been coma-inducing, but are instead compelling because there is an authenticity and relatibility to them that can’t be found in most films.
Looking back over the length of the film, little that would be considered out of the ordinary ever happens. Mason’s fictional life unfolds in a natural way similar to that of most anyone else growing up in America. It’s only when taken as whole you recognize how the events and people he’s encountered have shaped Mason.
Filming in a stop-and-go fashion each year could’ve led to it feeling uneven and lacking cohesiveness, but “Boyhood” never fails to flow naturally and convincingly marks the passage of time. There are no title cards or spoken dialogue to indicate the arrival of a new year. Instead Linklater uses cultural events and music to indicate the era. Songs by Coldplay, Phoenix and Arcade Fire or Mason and his sister planting Obama/Biden signs into people’s front yards are used as markers for a particular moment.
This has been a somewhat weak year for quality films thus far and with most of the films expected to stack up as the best of the year yet to be released, it’s difficult to say where “Boyhood” will rank as a legitimate award contender. Linklater is way overdue for receiving that kind of recognition, having only received Adapted Screenplay nominations for “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” in his career.
“Boyhood” currently has an incredible 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes with just two negative reviews out of 184, but IFC, the film’s distributor, will have to run a strong campaign to keep it in the public eye as many other quality films premiere over the next few months.
Awards or no awards though, “Boyhood” is a landmark film that will likely not be duplicated any time soon. Even if it can’t be replicated, we need more ambitous films like this. Too often it’s baffling to see Hollywood taking the safe route with the films it produces, favoring something mediocre that will make $100 million over creating lasting art. Linklater is a filmmaker who never backs away from challenging the limits of filmmaking and “Boyhood” is possibly the pinnacle of that ambition.