Richard Linklater has never been filmmaker worried about sticking to conventional cinema. From his wandering debut feature, Slacker, to his rotoscoped animated films, Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, or his half-documentary comedy/drama, Bernie, Linklater isn’t afraid to play with form, and he’s certainly not afraid to fail. With Boyhood, Linklater gathered a cast of four once a year for 12 years, and the result is a beautiful masterpiece, a personal film overflowing with universal themes. Not only do we see the actors mature, Linklater’s direction matures as the film progresses. As much attention is paid to how Linklater made Boyhood, what really resonates is what he’s made.
Boyhood contains no central plot. It’s a series of moments that culminate in the end of a childhood, like a film constructed of certain distant memories. Opening with scenes of young Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) as young children, he in his Spider-Man pajamas and her shrieking the lyrics to Britney Spears’ Oops!… I Did It Again. The two kids live with their single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) who bears the great weight of caring for her children while attempting to carry on relationships with flawed men. Desperate for a better life for her and her children, Olivia moves the family to Houston to go to college and be closer to her grandmother who’ll help. Their father, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke), has been gone for a year-and-a-half working in Alaska – whether that’s true or an embellishment is unclear.
Like life itself – not the movie, actual life – Boyhood is concerned with change and the people who come in and out of our lives. The family changes locations a few times, and the people around them drift away. Both Mason, Sr. and Olivia make their fair share of mistakes, they are human, but they’re always trying. At first, when the parents see one another, they argue and fight. As time passes, their relationship loses its contentious overtones – they’ve remarried, they’ve failed, their passions and anger have cooled with time. Boyhood is very much a film for the children of divorce.
Linklater’s process for Boyhood is no gimmick. There are no title cards signifying the passage of time. There are no dissolves that I can recall. The only signals to the passage of time are through pop culture, technology, moments in recent history, and, of course, physical changes. Linklater knows how we connect to pop culture, be it a song, a book, or a movie and uses them to inform the audience of the era which a segment takes place. There’s also a subtlety to manner with which Linklater presents the further creeping in of technology in our lives – evolving video game consoles, cell phones, smart phones, and social media all play minor supporting roles.
Like a great work of art should, Boyhood makes us connect with ourselves, to reflect, and to think about the broader similarities between ourselves. Some of the strongest praise I can bestow upon the film is that nothing feels forced, like it was guided by the pen of the writer. When a character goes through a change, it’s organic. Much like the people in our lives, the characters are the same yet they’ve changed. There’s nothing jarring about watching Samantha go from singing Britney Spears to complaining about a hangover, or Mason’s transformation from a boy looking at a Victoria’s Secret catalogue to a young man leaving for college.
Without a doubt, Boyhood is my top film of the year so far. A monumental achievement in cinema that will be talked about for decades to come. Whether you’re a man or woman, parent or child, sibling or only child, there’s something intimately human about everything that transpires. Something for us all to connect to. Unlike the tedious schlock of Sex Tape, a 90 minute film that feels like an eternity, Boyhood’s nearly 3-hour running time drifts by in a breeze. The film’s running time may seem like a hurdle but, like childhood, it’s over quicker than you realize.