There have been a lot of superlatives heaped on Richard Linklater's "Boyhood," a film shot over twelve years, following a core cast that aged in real time along with its fictional characters. The main character, a boy named Mason Evans Jr., is played by Ellar Coltrane, who was cast when he was six, and is eighteen at the end of the film. There have been a few documentaries that have followed children through their lives in a similar fashion, but this is the only narrative feature I've heard of that has attempted the conceit. Linklater has had experience with this, though - he's the director of the "Before" films that chart the relationship of one couple through multiple installments across two decades (and counting). "Boyhood" is far more ambitious, though, seeking to capture the process of growing up in a single three-hour feature.
The narrative is ordered the way memories are, which is to say that there are sometimes clearly laid out sequences or progression of events, but other scenes seem disconnected from anything else. It often feels like a collection of vignettes, little peeks into the characters' lives. We see the occasional milestone in Mason's life, but other moments are incidental - a visit with his grandmother or a casual conversation with a friend. Sometimes the inclusion of certain moments seems a little random, similar to how we remember some banal things more clearly than the big events, but there's no question that all these experiences are foundational. We first meet Mason at six, living with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and their single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) reappears in their lives after an extended absence to take the kids for outings on weekends. We follow them through the years, with some of the leaps forward in time more obvious than others. There are no obvious indicators for when specific events take place, or what ages the kids are at any given point, but we begin in 2002, and there are occasional glimpses of news reports or snatches of pop songs to act as signposts along the way.
Linklater avoids manufactured moments of too twee profundity for the most part, opting for a fairly candid, unfiltered look at American boyhood. Most of the adult characters casually curse. Mason never really gets along with his sister, but little is made of this. At one point there's a vigorous discussion of sexual experiences that could only be had by immature teenage boys. Major dilemmas remain unresolved and people react in ways that are entirely contrary to what we've been taught to expect in other movies about children. There's a refreshing lack of sentimentality throughout. For example, Olivia asks Mason to paint a door frame, not remembering (or perhaps not caring) that Mason and Samantha's height measurement marks have been collected there. Mason does as instructed, without a fuss, and hardly any reaction at all. There are a few twists and turns that feel a little too calculated, and one involving a restaurant server that is downright cliche, but otherwise Linklater succeeds in creating a story that feels like it's happening to a real boy in the real world in real time.
Mason isn't particularly interesting as a subject, and Ellar Coltrane's performance is uneven, particularly towards the end when he becomes more active. However, it works for the film. So much of the role is reactive, as most of the events of Mason's childhood are completely out of his control, as they are for most children. His early attempts at asserting himself as a teenager are awkward and uncomfortable. However, the cumulative effect of seeing him go through all these different stages of life, seeing his relationships change, and his sense of self develop is extraordinary. I was surprised at how invested I was in Mason's life by the final scenes of the movie. Just as vital as Coltrane are Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason's parents. We also see their characters navigate twelve eventful years onscreen, getting older and changing bit by bit until they're both very different from how they were when we first met them. Arquette in particular gets to portray a wonderfully complex, imperfect human being who wants to do right by her kids, but also makes some terrible mistakes out of that same instinct.
The twelve-year production of "Boyhood" has been the subject of much discussion. Richard Linklater didn't start out with the narrative mapped out, but let it evolve year by year as the film progressed. This is very noticeable, especially as the film is more aggressively structured in the beginning and gradually switched to a more passive, documentary style. The final scenes in particular, when Mason is eighteen, are more meandering and incidental. They are also quite a bit longer than any of the other segments, as Linklater wraps up a few loose plot threads and puts cappers on the major character arcs. Though most of the film seems to fly by, I was definitely feeling the three-hour running time by the end. However, this is only a minor stumble in a unique, rewarding film that by and large succeeds at what it set out to do. I don't think this is one of Linklater's best films - it's far too chaotic and self aware at times, and you can tell when the kids started to lose interest in the project. However, there's truly nothing out out there quite like it.