Contrary to most dramas, which tend to dwell on traumatic or seismic events, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood argues that life is a compilation of small, everyday moments, an accumulation of the feelings and thoughts and emotions we start to gather from the time we are children. Shot over the span of 12 years, with the cast getting together for a few days annually to shoot some scenes, the movie charts the growth of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the ages of 5 to 18. Mason has an older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and he has two loving parents, Mom (Patricia Arquette) and Dad (Ethan Hawke), who are divorced and live apart. Their relationship can be contentious at times, but they both care deeply for their kids.
Linklater has worked in various modes before — straight-up Hollywood movies (The Bad News Bears, School of Rock, The Newton Boys), experimental animation ( Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly), even a combination of documentary and fictional narrative ( Bernie). But the approach he uses in Boyhood is the same one he took for his Before trilogy ( Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight), a subtle, inobtrusive style that makes you feel as if you were peering into the lives of real people going about their humdrum business. There is no score in Boyhood, no title cards or montages, nothing to come between you and the film. We notice Mason’s growth by his changing hairstyles and loss of baby fat and upgrading of video game systems (his sister’s sudden growth spurt is another indicator). Gradually, this pear-shaped little kid becomes a tall, lean, kind teenager. There’s nothing extraordinary about him, which is what makes him so intriguing. He’s not a stand-in for the audience — he’s his own distinct person — but you’ve probably met people like him in real life, which is what gives the picture its transfixing power. You are literally watching a young man grow up before your eyes.
Coltrane, who is chatty and eloquent in real life, plays Mason as a quiet, observant kid who absorbs elements of his parents’ personas: His dad’s arrested-development, let’s-have-fun enthusiasm (he still drives a GTO) and his mom’s sense of responsibility and duty. The movie could have easily been called Motherhood, because Arquette’s journey — going back to school to earn her degree so she can get a better job, enduring two bad marriages, preparing herself for the inevitable day when her kids will leave the nest — is just as arresting as Mason’s. Arquette taps into the same sort of natural non-acting Hawke helped perfect in the Before movies, so you never feel like you’re watching movie stars pretending to be parents. They feel like a real couple, with a rocky history behind them, trying to work out their differences for the sake of their children.
Boyhood understands the tumult of puberty and adolescence as well as it does the hardship and satisfaction of raising children. The miracle Linklater pulls off is that the picture (which runs almost three hours) will fascinate viewers of all ages, whether it’s reminding you of your parents or evoking what it’s like to nurture a family. The movie is filled with seemingly inconsequential moments that make you smile in recognition, such as Mason’s quiet tantrum when his father tells him he’s not giving him his GTO, or a scene in which Mason and some friends find a sawblade and start throwing it around (boys play such potentially dangerous games, it’s a wonder so many of them grow up to become men).
The movie isn’t all warm hugs and nostalgia. Linklater reminds you that growing up has plenty of unpleasant hardships, too. But he avoids all the expected cliches — Mason’s first crush, his first kiss, the loss of his virginity — in favor of dinners and outings and the sort of simple moments that mysteriously stick with you, for no apparent reason other than the way you felt at the time. When a mopey Mason asks his father what life is all about, his dad replies “We’re all just winging it. The good news is you’re feeling stuff, you know? And you’ve got to hold on to that. You get older, and you don’t feel as much, your skin gets tough.” This remarkable, wonderful movie helps you remember.