Three and a half stars (out of four)
R (language, including sexual references, teen drug and alcohol use)
For many Americans, the last 10 years or so have passed in a blur. So many things have changed in our post-9/11 world that it’s impossible to process it all. That’s why Richard Linklater’s coming-of-age tale, “Boyhood,” is so remarkable. In spanning the childhood of Mason, a kid from Texas who is at once ordinary and extraordinary, the film functions as a vivid time capsule of the past decade.
Watching “Boyhood” sent me flashing back to my wedding in 2003, when I walked down the aisle to the sounds of Coldplay’s incomparable “Yellow.” It made me remember the magic of holding a new copy of J.K. Rowling’s latest Harry Potter book in my hands. It brought back the hope I felt, however short-lived, when Barack Obama was elected president.
It made me realize that my own daughter will be grown in the blink of an eye, every minute of her life miraculous. When Patricia Arquette’s character despairs, toward the end of the film, exclaiming, “I thought there would be more,” I knew exactly what she meant.
Your reaction to “Boyhood” is likely to be different but it will be no less personal. You don’t have to be a boy, a Texan, or a parent to be deeply impacted by this languid, lovely rumination on childhood, memory, family and the small but glorious moments that make a life. Watching the movie is a surreal and amazing experience.
Linklater’s obsession with aging and time previously manifested itself in the “Before” trilogy, which charted the on-again, off-again romance of vagabond lovers Celine (Julie Delpy) and Jesse (Ethan Hawke) over the course of 18 years. The trilogy’s first installment, “Before Sunrise,” brims with youthful romance, while the latest chapter, 2013’s “Before Midnight,” is older, wiser and more painful to watch. It won’t exactly come as a surprise if Linklater should choose to reunite Delpy and Hawke for another rendezvous, say, 15 years from now.
“Boyhood” is an even more ambitious project. Linklater filmed it over 12 years, gathering his cast annually for a few days of shooting. The movie’s magnetic star, Ellar Coltrane, was just 6 when production began. He was 18 when it finally wrapped, so the audience is treated to the rare and strange experience of watching this young man grow up on camera, while the adult actors age right along with him. It’s an approach that resounds with authenticity, throwing into stark relief the sentimental artifice of virtually every coming-of-age movie that has come before.
“Boyhood” is the story of Mason, who we first see as a scruffy but thoughtful kindergartener, circa 2002. Mason lives with his struggling single mother (Arquette), who has terrible taste in men but is fiercely protective of her children, and older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei), who annoys him by singing Britney Spears songs.
Mason and Samantha find themselves uprooted when mom moves the family to Houston so she can attend college. The migration leads to a reconnection with the kids’ absentee dad, who could very well be Hawke’s slacker musician from “Reality Bites,” 10 years in the future. To his ex-wife’s chagrin, the father attempts to forge a relationship with his children over bowling and drives in his awesome car.
As with the “Before” trilogy, there’s no conventional Hollywood structure to “Boyhood.” The film takes a meandering approach, checking in with Mason each year and not necessarily at the most dramatic points in his childhood — a poignant reminder that it’s not always the major milestones that shape us, but a collection of small events.
Linklater traces Mason’s path to adulthood, from traumatic haircuts to family squabbles, bullying in the school bathroom to camping trips with dad. We watch Mason do what most kids do — play video games, shirk his homework, take an interest in the opposite sex — and it’s fascinating.
In a gradual and incredible cinematic alchemy, the dreamy, shaggy-haired boy who asks his father with utmost gravity whether elves exist transforms before our eyes into a cynical, skinny, quietly charming teenager with a passion for photography, a first girlfriend, a first job, college plans and lots of questions about the meaning of it all.
As a road map to the various stops along Mason’s journey, Linklater brilliantly uses pop songs of the decade and subtle references to changing technology, politics and pop culture. We know roughly when and where we are because Arcade Fire is playing on the radio, or there is a conversation about the Iraq War, or someone is watching a Lady Gaga video. Since the movie was filmed in the moment, there are no flashy attempts at retro costuming or art design. It feels real.
The film’s intensely naturalistic tone mimics the unpolished rhythms of improvisation. It’s actually painstakingly scripted, drawing from the filmmaker’s Texas boyhood. The movie’s sprawling scope is casual but electric, although it runs on for too long, clocking in at almost three hours. I suppose if I spent the last 12 years shooting a film, I’d be reluctant to whittle it down, too.
In casting Coltrane, Linklater hit the jackpot. How could he know this young actor would remain such a marvel over 18 years of growth, even through the awkward stages? And Hawke is so winning as a flawed father who nevertheless loves his children and really tries, in contrast to the string of alcoholic stepdads Mason’s mom brings home. Here’s hoping he never has to squander his talents on another “Sinister” or “The Purge.”
“Boyhood” celebrates parents, no matter how imperfect, and the way they protect and nurture their children, and acknowledges the many people — siblings, teachers, bosses, family friends — who influence who we become. It’s one of the few films that provides a clear-eyed view of 21st century families and its view of that tarnished but still sacred institution is sweetly hopeful.