Boyhood is an ambitious coming of age drama by Dazed and Confused writer/director Richard Linklater. The film does not try to be more than what it is, and it is done with so much care and craftsmanship that it’s hard not to love it.
It is near impossible to discuss Boyhood without first looking into how it was filmed. Formerly titled “The 12 Year Project” and “12 Years”, Boyhood was shot over the course of twelve years, following six-year-old Ellar Coltrane and his onscreen character Mason as they grow over the course of the film. There was one scene in the middle of the film where I thought to myself that a movie like this could never be done as well and as believable without filming over a long period of time. While attending a Houston Astros game with his dad, there are several cuts between the game at hand and Mason. I’m so conditioned to having a jarring transition between older sports footage and current day filming that I expected it here, but of course it went from a crystal clear Roger Clemens back to a crystal clear Ethan Hawk and Ellar Coltrane because it was filmed that day and not awkwardly thrown together with footage years apart. It’s a small thing, sure, but a lot of tiny details like that go a long way to building a true-to-life world that would be impossible if anyone tried to do this over the normal duration of flimmaking. Honestly, Boyhood has permanently changed the way I watch movies and judge characters growing up over a two-hour movie.
To his credit, Ellar Coltrane was fantastic as the childhood portrayal of Mason. He was an adorable little kid who turned in a great performance during the first half of the film. Anyone who has suffered through an otherwise great movie ruined by terrible child actors can understand just how much of an accomplishment that was. It is not hard to see why Linklater chose him as a child to portray the main character over the next decade of filming. Once he grows up a bit, though, Coltrane begins to suffer as puberty hits like a freight train. His lines that were once delivered confidently as a child turned into uncomfortable teenage mumbles about half way through the film. Linklater artfully worked around this by constantly putting the teenage Mason in situations that built off Coltrane’s awkwardness. Everything from uncomfortable conversations with his parents to awkward conversations with girls he has crushes on constantly always feel so real.
Like other details about growing up, Boyhood embraced those faults and wove them into the story and relatable world. With all our advances in Photoshop and makeup, you can’t tell me that Mason couldn’t have been played up like a stereotypical movie pretty boy teenager, but instead Linklater made the conscious decision to showcase his greasy hair, acne, and terrible posture. It feeds into your own insecurities and really helps you feel connected to Mason and to an extent Coltrane himself. In a way, Mason was written so that almost any awkward teenager could have been plugged into Ellar Coltrane’s place and it still would have worked. The movie could have used a better performance in his later years, sure, but it still didn’t ruin the later sections by any means.
Despite being cast primarily because she constantly bugged her dad to be in his film, Lorelei Linklater also gave a great performance from adolescence to adulthood as Mason’s sister, Samantha. She played her part as annoying (and at-times annoyed) older sister in the early years and then the guiding hand and bad influence in the character’s late-teens wonderfully. It became apparent as they grew that the duo didn’t look very similar, but they had enough on-screen brother/sister chemistry to still make their relationship believable.
Linklater once again proves just how much he understands pop culture and how it affects society, without any ham-fisted or out-of-place references for the sake of nostalgia. Seeing a child watching Dragonball Z or playing a relatively obscure Game Boy Advance game can easily feel like blatant nostalgia bait for the sake of being nostalgic, but in part because Boyhood was actually filmed when those things were popular, they feel completely natural and just part of the world. This worldbuilding is also carried over as the scenes get closer and closer to present date as pop culture references of today are treated with the same reverence as those from the early 2000’s. It is not a filmmaker just shoving old references in your face to set the time period, it is a growing boy using these things in his natural life and they all blend in flawlessly.
The film is essentially broken up into several short stories that were filmed years apart and stitched into a coherent and competently composed storyline. Every new “story” starts with a scattershot of information as you’re introduced to new characters, locations, and emotional states. From there, scenes are handled in such a way that you are constantly connecting the dots from year-to-year and it keeps you engaged with the story and life of Mason and his family. Clever cues such as a date at the top of a school paper or a calendar just barely in the shot clue you into what year you are currently watching. When Coltrane was younger in the earlier sequences, it was honestly a little difficult to tell when a major time shift occurred and led to some confusion, but as everyone grew the intro scenes were more careful to begin each shot with a character who has clearly changed – such as Samantha’s hair changing color or the varied haircuts of Mason. After those first couple transitions you never feel lost and are always immediately assimilated to what time you’re in as the story progresses along.
One of my favorite things about Boyhood is the fact there is something for virtually everyone somewhere in the story and characters. If you are someone around the same age as Mason a lot of the references in the earlier scenes are really going to resonate with you and Linklater really nails the feel of growing up during that time period. As I said before, the pop culture products, events, and people are crafted perfectly into the world to the point that it’ll really take you back to that time period as you yourself were a child. For someone older, the references to a Game Boy Advance and Britney Spears might not be much more than crap you had to put up with in your mid-30’s but it’s still a fascinating character study for young Mason and his struggling parents. I imagine it would not be hard for anyone who was a child at one point (I mean, that’s most of you, right?) could project themselves onto Mason and the troubles he endured, regardless of what random TV show he was watching or toy he was playing. In the end, these things add to showcasing what time period is being shown but are far from the focus of the scenes at hand.
Even though they weren’t the main focus of the film, the story arch of both of Mason’s parents were fantastic and very true-to-life. Both actors, Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette give solid performances and grow along with their respective characters. Of course their physical aging isn’t as dramatic as the kid’s, but it is still easy to tell from scene to scene that they’ve changed both in appearance and personality.
Overall, there was a lot of restraint shown in the story-telling. There were several points throughout the film where I assumed something tragic and stereotypical would happen, but instead the story continued along on its extremely real trajectory. Re-incorporations were done tastefully – and sometimes unexpectedly – and there were no unnecessary flashbacks or other attemps to manipulate you throughout the scenes. No flashy editing, no imposing music. Linklater doesn’t compromise a single thing in the script to cram in some major over-the-top event just for the sake of injecting drama. The story is about a boy growing up, it’s about life and the moments that make up life. Not all of them are flashy set pieces like in the movies, but every small moment builds on itself and those before it to create a running drama that will stick with you long after the film’s satisfying conclusion.
Three hours might seem like a long time to dedicate your butt to a seat and watch an awkward teenage boy shamble through his life, but even after almost 180 minutes I was left wanting more. All the new information you’re given every new set piece is enough to make it all feel fresh while still being invested in the same characters and over-arching story. This is definitely one I’ll be picking up when it comes out in hopes of an extended version.
The absolute only thing keep me from giving this a perfect score is Coltrane’s acting towards the end of the film. All of the covering up and purposefully placing him in awkward situations can’t make up for just how bad Ellar Coltrane was in his later teen years. That said, it is only enough to knock it down a half star and is still an absolute must see movie. There is something to relate to for just about everyone – male or female, young or old. All the toys you played with, the people you knew, that inexplicably slightly Hispanic sister you had, it’s all here and delivered in a believable way.
Boyhood is likely winding down its theatrical presence, and I highly recommend going out to see it while you can. It’s not really a movie with explosions or flashy effects, so waiting until it’s out on Blu-Ray or VOD will also serve you just fine for this wonderful film should you decide to wait. Either way, if you’re a fan of movies you owe it to yourself to see this at least once in your lifetime.