Much has been ballyhooed about the method in which Richard Linklater’s Boyhood was filmed and with legitimate reason. The 11 year period chronicling the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family was indeed shot during that same period of time. From a visual standpoint, it’s remarkable to witness our actors aging in real time. This especially holds true for our central character who we follow from age 6 through his entrance to college.
Boyhood is grand and innovative in its shooting schedule approach and yet small and intimate and simple in the approach of the storytelling. We see Mason grow over time from a kid mostly disinterested in school to a lover of photography who may someday figure out a way to use his talents wisely. There’s a lot of the items young men (and women) may recognize from their own time in those pre-teen and teenage years. Embellishing your sexual history before having one. Experimenting with drugs and alcohol. There’s a scene in which Dad attempts the birds and bees talk with his children and it is probably the most realistic one committed to film. Since our tale takes us from 2002 to 2013, we also see the progression of video games and Apple products and also music. Mason’s sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) starts out singing hits by Britney Spears, but as our characters mature – Wilco and mixed tapes featuring Beatles members factor in. As a side note, there’s an amusing discussion at one point about whether another Star Wars would be made long before Linklater and company could have known there would be one. And I’ll be damned if little Ellar Coltrane doesn’t grow up to kind of look like Hayden Christensen.
In some ways, Boyhood is as much about Mason’s family. His parents had their two children young and they didn’t stay together. Mom is played by Patricia Arquette and Dad is Ethan Hawke. Like Mason, we see them grow. Hot rod vehicles become minivans. We see their screw ups too including bad relationships. What is notable about the screenplay is that we see it through the lens of Mason at the age he happens to be in. For instance, we don’t know what Mom does for a living until Mason would be at an age when he would care.
The picture is strongest in the first half of its deliberate two hour and forty five minute running time. One reason: the performances of Coltrane and Linklater work best at that juncture. They are kids acting like real kids and written that way. You don’t always have that in movies and it is refreshing here. We see them competing for their Dad’s affection because they only see him every once in a while. The groundwork that’s layed in the early stages here pave the way for understanding how the principal actors interact with one another later. Much credit is due to the performers. Arquette and Hawke do fine work here and a scene towards the end with Arquette in particular justifies the Oscar buzz.
The quibble with the second half is as follows: sadly, age doesn’t improve the acting of Coltrane and it shows. Linklater is going for something remarkable in his method of directing with the time gaps. His screenplay is aiming for nothing so grand. This is life filled with small moments and very occasional big ones. It’s certainly more grounded in realism than most others and we remain highly involved in the family’s story well beyond watching Mason’s hairstyle change. Still, I can’t pretend as if the limited acting ability of Coltrane isn’t sometimes a distraction because it was for me.
Boyhood takes its time with its characters and isn’t foolish enough to try some big reveal about the “meaning of it all.” It doesn’t try to wrap everything in a tidy bow at the conclusion either. Life will go on. Sometimes it’ll be boring. Sometimes you’ll get to have a moment where you may even realize it’s a meaningful one. The picture itself is one in which I’ll remember mostly for the cool way it was made and the occasional moments where it rises to near greatness. I’ll go ahead and admit that I believe some critics have overrated what my Boyhood experience was. I’m glad I got to spend time with these people though.
*** (out of four)