Boyhood is built on what some would call a stunt. Following a family over a period of twelve years, it allows us to watch its main actors age, mature and transform, coming gradually to embody fully the characters as written and directed by Richard Linklater — in the process chronicling the evolution and transformation inherent to life itself. It’s particularly astonishing and surreal to watch two fictional children of divorce grow up as performed by two actors who are also flowering under our cinematic microscope: Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow from prepubescent elementary schoolers to young adults in just under three hours, and from the last glimpse of a friend destined never to be seen again to first-love wanderings and conversations about crushes to the way memory and perception just build up and form these people, the miracle is that we find ourselves remembering how we ourselves were formed. Forget boyhood — it’s as evocative and sympathetic a facsimile of how childhood and adolescence feel as a John Darnielle song, and I imagine it’s equally perceptive about being a struggling (or non-struggling, why not) parent.
This is not a wholly unique notion. There is, of course, Michael Apted’s Up series, but that was nonfiction. Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, starting with the classic The 400 Blows, allows us to see Jean-Pierre Leaud grow up before our eyes, but that’s in four and a half movies released over the course of a couple of decades. Even the series of eight Harry Potter films bears mentioning. But in the end, Linklater probably has the market cornered as far as a shooting schedule for a single narrative film deliberately spanning a dozen years. And the net result, among other things, is that a movie actually made it into the pop culture consciousness that’s simply about people. Nothing explodes, nobody gets killed, the four central characters are sensitively and plausibly portrayed, and nothing really happens — except in the sense that, y’know, everything happens.
A lot of reviews have made a point of saying that the movie would be remarkable without the technical chutzpah and incredible stamina — think of how far the movie industry has fallen since 2002 — of its central conceit. Nonsense, I say. The reception toward and attention afforded Boyhood may well have been a shocker if it were shot with several different actors as the two children rather than Coltrane and Linklater throughout, the grownups in aging makeup, but the script and movie themselves would have been an interesting and affecting minor project, little more. (Granted, the kind of minor project we need more of these days.) Where I seem to part with many is that I don’t see why that’s a problem — the stunt is the movie. If much of our emotional response to all of this is tied to its concise and heartrendingly vivid depiction of the passing of time, I’m confused as to why that is strictly a gimmick. It adds resonance to scenes that might otherwise be routine or even hackneyed because of course it does.
I went to see this the night after I rewatched Jonathan Demme’s Melvin and Howard, which I think is one of the greatest films ever made about so-called “average” people trying to make it from day to day. I must say that I was nearly as affected by the sheer realism and nonchalance of Linklater’s film, an enormous compliment to Boyhood. It’s so crucial to its impact that it concentrates on the preludes or aftermaths of momentous occasions, seldom displaying the turning points or emotional climaxes. That gives it the feel of actual memory, which so often fixates on what did not seem important at the time. That tossed-off quality of capturing something that resembles actual life has the effect, like Melvin and Howard, of reminding us that there’s not such a thing as ordinary.
All of the performances are sublime. Ethan Hawke always plays exactly the same role but he’s so good at it — in this case, fully defining Mason Sr., a good man who wasn’t ready for fatherhood and in certain respects still doesn’t seem to be; as overgrown kid, pandering cool-guy parent and eventual semi-redeemed semi-jerkass, Hawke is vivid, irksome and sublime. You love him and you want to kill him, the way most people probably feel about their dads. Ellar Coltrane builds up from pure, perfectly believable introspective kid-stuff to a formidable screen presence — he even comes to resemble Hawke more than a bit in both appearance and mannerisms, which could not possibly have been predicted. Lorelei Linklater’s Samantha is a riot in every single scene that involves her and crafts as intricate a characterization as does the guy playing her brother — we only see her from a distance much of the time and a lot of our sense of who she is and information about her is wispy and skeletal, yet she seems to live and breathe. And best of all is Patricia Arquette, whose warmth, intelligence and sadness as long-suffering, intelligent, repeatedly broken mom Olivia are the most haunting element of the film.
I can only imagine how resonant a film Boyhood must be for anyone who is Coltrane’s age now. It is for me in some ways because it causes me to reflect on the twelve years depicted, from 2002 to 2014, in my own life, during which time (not to bore you with such things) I have alarmingly enough lived in the same exact apartment but have watched everything else about my life change well past the point of recognition, which helps the film’s point that beginnings are constant unless you give up on them, accidentally or intentionally. This resonates even more than the movie’s clear intention to remind me of my childhood — although that’s in there too. As ever, the things that “ring true” aren’t the generalities, they’re the specifics. I was leaving high school around the time the film begins, and I never went to college or had anything really analogous to that experience, and yet I do find that the note of general melancholy and marginal hopefulness that closes us out here achingly familiar. I’m less fond of Linklater’s Before… trilogy than almost everyone else I know because I find the view of relationships espoused and exemplified by those films all but completely alien to me for whatever reason, and yet there’s some gravity or grace to his perception of growth and change in Boyhood that really got to me, and this without any huge revelatory moments or crescendos. Its effect is carefully cumulative, and that’s quite something in a film this lengthy that was formed piece by piece over so long a period.
I’ve gone back and forth on how I felt about Mason as a character. When I left the theater I was thinking that I wasn’t sure I had really gotten to know the guy, which was not at all a comment on Coltrane’s luminous performance. It certainly seemed like I knew his sister better than I knew him, and that a big part of me would’ve preferred a movie primarily about her. After all, it has to be said that while this movie shouldn’t shoulder the blame for it, we’ve really had enough damn coming of age pictures about WASP boys in the suburbs already, you know? Ultimately what redeems this facet for me is that while I may finally know little about Mason beyond the image he chooses to project in those warmly realized pseudo-intellectual teenage conversations, when the film ends I feel as if I have lived his life. For the entire day afterward, snatches of dialogue and moments from the film were coming back to me, and I found myself still processing and reinterpreting them, like you do with things that actually happened to you. It’s not unlike how I felt after Gravity; yeah, Sandra Bullock is a blank slate, but as we come through that dilemma and out the other side we are her. And that’s impressive enough.
It’s perhaps an obvious point that isn’t handled with much subtlety, but it’s admirable how the film nonchalantly logs the political, social and cultural tenor of the times without making some lazy montage about it — it illustrates Obama, Iraq and Lady Gaga as they might appear through the eyes of these young characters, not in the skewed perspective of a larger, more savvy outsider looking backward. And the music choices are impeccable as far as bringing back specific moments — Vampire Weekend playing while people are putting out Obama signs? “Do You Realize” blaring from a car in the middle of summer? Coldplay’s “Yellow” earworming its way into the constant internal not-fully-desired singalong you thought you’d shed back in 2001? “Oops — I Did It Again!” being used in just the annoying fashion for which it was likely written? Arcade Fire do I really need to make this a complete sentence? Is this how Boomers felt when they heard the most ubiquitous songs of their youth show up in The Big Chill? Best of all, though, is that Austin montage set to Yo La Tengo’s “I’ll Be Around” — one of the film’s few unabashedly romantic moments, and one fully justified by what comes before and after: a love burned to the ground, likely the first of many, but weren’t the moments when it was right worth it all?
Unfortunately, twelve years’ worth of missteps accumulate, too, and are more and more egregious the more one’s mind lingers upon the picture. The drunken stepdad character who stops the film dead in its tracks at the halfway point is horribly, lazily written, artificially sinister from his innocuous first scene; while I am completely aware that such assholes exist in the real world, his good qualities are so alien to us that he seems like a cartoon living among the real people in the rest of the film, and the performance by Marco Perella is jarringly pitched. It just doesn’t belong. There are a few other conversations and moments that tried my patience, though just as many had that quality I so rarely see — there are such moments in Somewhere, Melvin and Howard The Last Detail,and most of Noah Baumbach’s films — that seem almost indistinguishable from reality to me. That makes the false notes stick out all the more, the things that seem too cliched to be felt: some of the initial traits of Hawke’s character, some of the bro-y conversations, and especially the ludicrous stuff about Arquette talking a plumber into going back to school — so that he can get a degree and start desperately looking for work that won’t make him as much money as his plumbing job did, but I digress.
After all of that, there is that tragic final moment with Olivia and then the closing sequences, so lively and rife with possibilities. Because The Graduate is one of my favorite movies, I couldn’t help but be moved to something close to tears by the final scene’s rhyme with it, such a sweet and optimistic take on that bleak, beautifully interpolated moment. So I was ecstatic as I walked out of Boyhood, conflicted just after, and increasingly impressed in the days that followed. I think this is a complicated one, and I think that’s wonderful. It feels honest, unpretentious, major. Any movie this much about the emotional reactions in its viewers — mine, yours, everybody’s — is doing something right.