Boyhood, the picture that has gone from a small indie film to one of the most talked-about movies of the summer, was filmed over the span of 12 years. Between the ages of 6 and 18, Ellar Coltrane filmed scenes for the movie, aging a dozen years over the running time of the film.
It was an incredibly daring gamble on writer-director Richard Linklater’s part. What if Coltrane (cast as Mason Evans, Jr.) lost interest in doing the movie after a couple of years? What if Ethan Hawke or Patricia Arquette, who play Mason’s parents, quit acting during that time? What if Linklater or one of the actors passed away before finishing it? There were so many things to that could go wrong with making Boyhood. Fortunately, everything came together nearly perfectly, creating a one-of-a-kind, cinematic wonder.
Boyhood follows Mason as he grows from a child to a teenager to an adult, dropping in on his life for a few days once a year. Mason goes through all the experiences a growing child deals with, from wonderful moments like his first kiss and graduating high school to traumatic experiences like being isolated at school and having an alcoholic step-father.
Some years of Mason’s youth only get five minutes of Boyhood’s running time. Other ages get 15 or 20 minutes apiece. All told, the dozen years of Mason’s childhood are covered over 165 minutes, leaving the movie feeling simultaneously a little long and a little rushed.
Each year, on its own, is an interesting snapshot of a family’s life, but Boyhood’s power is in using the scope of twelve years to look at a bigger picture than normally can be addressed in a mainstream movie. As a whole, Boyhood is stronger than the sum of its parts, becoming a fascinatingly rich and complex story of one person discovering who he is in the world.
The entire concept is a lofty one, but Linklater handles it with aplomb. His direction is focussed but unobtrusive, giving many shots and scenes a realistic, honest feel like that of the family scenes in The Tree of Life. His screenplay is excellent, less worried about each individual scene’s success than about the big picture. Linklater also was clearly willing to adapt the screenplay over the years to accommodate the unexpected and the unanticipated, which gives Boyhood a pliancy that keeps you from ever knowing quite where it will go.
While the bulk of the acting credit definitely goes to Coltrane, who holds your attention in every scene, Hawke and Arquette are also both wonderful as Mason’s divorced parents. Arquette’s Olivia powerfully struggles with being a single mother and Hawke’s Mason, Sr. works hard to stay connected while being out of Mason’s life for large chunks of time. Lorelei Linklater is also excellent as Mason’s slightly older sister, Samantha.
Boyhood, by its premise alone, left itself open to becoming a gimmick movie. It very easily could have just been an interesting, well-made experiment, like Russian Ark or Phone Booth. Instead, thanks to the unfathomable dedication of Richard Linklater, Coltrane, Hawke, Arquette, and Lorelei Linklater, Boyhood stands tall, the best movie of the summer and sure to go down as one of the best films of the year.