When a filmmaker perfectly aligns the technical and the artistic, we’re reminded of the transformative power of cinema. Lost amid the genre clichés and computer-generated extravaganzas lies an expansive battlefield called ‘the human condition’, where moments of great power co-mingle with insignificant monotony to shape our lives. Boyhood depicts these moments with startling honesty and grace, bereft of casual judgment or detached irony. It is a meditation on everything and nothing; an acknowledgement that despite the pain and confusion, we’re going to be okay. Because, really, what other choice do we have?
Shot in 39 days over the course of 12 years, writer-director Richard Linklater takes us inside the world of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a quiet kid who’s more comfortable pondering the troublesome questions lurking in his mind than seeking easy answers from someone else. We watch him grow from a typical first-grader—curious about elves, arrowheads, and why Daddy doesn’t live at home anymore—to a typical college freshman, preoccupied with independence, relationships, and the general calamities resulting from both. There’s a voyeuristic glee to the filmmaking here, as Linklater drops us into the seemingly random moments that will continue to resonate long after passing from Mason’s awareness.
As Mason grows older, so too do those friends and family surrounding him. Using the same principal cast over 12 years allows Linklater to use time itself as a character, proving that physical and emotional maturity don’t always develop at the same rate. Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette), for instance, gets involved with (and sometimes marries) the same abusive male type over and over again, never learning the warning signs despite her obvious intelligence. Mason’s older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), conversely, exudes a precocious wit and spirit that we suspect will endure throughout her lifetime. Finally, there is Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke), who undergoes the film’s most satisfying transformation from restless young man to grizzled elder. Though Linklater avoids any sweeping pronouncements about humanity, his characters illustrate a powerful truth: our happiness depends upon recognizing the weaknesses that nature is eager to exploit.
From a technical and structural perspective, Boyhood is a towering achievement. With no conventional plotlines to guide him, there were literally hundreds of ways for Linklater’s ambition to best him. And yet, he never falters. He seamlessly progresses from year to year, using pop culture, technology, or historical events to subtly mark the transitions. There are no glaring clichés to condense time or false melodramas to amplify emotions—the filmmaking here is delicate, with each scene given a chance to explore its particular moment. Eventually, these moments accumulate into a kind of ethereal narrative, where things feel as though they are escalating despite a complete lack of dramatic urgency. In other words, it feels like life unfolding, which is perhaps the highest compliment you could pay a filmmaker.
The performances are uniformly strong, with each actor, young and old (and sometimes in between), thoroughly occupying their character. Ellar Coltrane is a serene presence as Mason. His head might appear to be in the clouds, but that aloof manner only obscures a meaningful engagement with the world below. Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, is a frequent scene-stealer who oscillates between needing a hug and needing a scolding. The early antagonism between a young brother and sister—backseat warfare in the minivan, or a pillow fight gone awry—gives way to that awkward sibling affection that comes from years of agonizing familiarity. But the real gem is Hawke as Mason Sr., a ‘weekend father’ who never allows his guilt or regret to reduce him to an over-compensating stereotype. With only a handful of scenes at his disposal, Hawke must hit every note perfectly. The result is a fully-realized character with strengths and flaws and earnest sincerity. The ‘boy’ in Boyhood may refer to Mason Jr., but Mason Sr. also finds the strength to leave his boyish ways behind.
It’s unlikely we’ll see a better dramatic film in 2014 than Boyhood. Yes, there is a lot of philosophizing toward the end of its 165-minute running time, but it feels more like a well-deserved bow for our hero than a case of directorial self-indulgence. There are astonishing moments of insight and anguish sprinkled throughout Linklater’s masterpiece, but mostly it affords us the opportunity to see our own lives from the outside — to see the bad decisions and the moral victories as a unified whole. It’s that rarest form of artistic expression that reveals not one life, but all lives.
— J.R. Kinnard
Boyhood had its Quebec premiere as part of the Fantasia International Film Festival. Please visit the festival’s official website.