Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s opus shot over a 12-year period, is utterly fantastic from start to finish. It’s a delicious slice of life about a boy from ages 6 to 18, and the spinning reality that is his life — complete with a caring mother, multiple stepfathers, a savvy sister, and a biological father who himself grows quite a bit over the years.
When we first meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane), he’s a precocious six-year-old who earlier had put a bunch of stones into his classroom’s pencil sharpener. You know, to see if he could get more arrowheads for his collection. At the time, he lives with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), with his dad (Ethan Hawke) stopping by on the weekends in his flashy GTO to woo the kids and show them a fun time. Sort of the way a lot of so-called broken families are, come to think of it. Hawke’s Dad is slick, though he obviously cares about his kids; it’s just obvious that Mom’s made the right choice to move on without him, because Dad is sort of in a period of arrested childhood.
Later, Mom decides to go back to school so that she can get a job that will provide for her kids, and she falls for her professor (Marco Perella); they’re soon married, with the professor’s own son and daughter joining the growing family. Meanwhile, Dad still sees the kids when possible, offering more and more worldly advice and less and less fun time.
The kids grow, as do the adults, sometimes physically. Foibles are exposed; harrowing, realistic events occur. Mason and his sister see their roles in life rapidly evolve, from being wholly dependent on their elders to being more assertive and able to make (sometimes wrong) decisions. Mom (Wikipedia says her name is Olivia, but IMDb credits her as only Mom) grows from being a single, blue-collar working mom to a single, white-collar working mom, loving and helping her kids every step of the way. Dad (aka Mason Sr.) grows out of his advanced-childhood phase to become a new father with a new wife, thus giving him a second chance at being a true dad.
Boyhood is a movie packed with emotion. One immediately identifies with Mason, a good kid who learns about love and loss and responsibility and happiness, growing literally before our eyes. Yes, it’s the same actor for all of those shots — which makes it tough early on, when one might not be instantly sure which kid is supposed to be Mason. Mason is a regular kid, and we get to vicariously experience his, well his childhood. Having a sister. Having a stepbrother and a stepsister. Having stepfathers. Alcoholism. Checking out pictures of women in a lingerie catalog. Learning to shoot photographs, and later a rifle. Dealing with bullies and other authority figures. Falling in love, losing in love. Awkwardness disguised as nihilism; irresponsibility masquerading as honesty.
One of the great benefits to shooting over such a long time frame is that the development of the characters can be grown rather organically, without the shoehorning of new actors. The same child actor, Coltrane, is six-year-old Mason as he is the 18-year-old Mason, on his first day of college. That precocious little boy, so smart but aimless, progresses to a high school graduation and attendant party, where we encounter various figures from Mason’s recent and distant past. And although both Coltrane and Hawke offer terrific performances, it’s Patricia Arquette who steals the movie as Olivia, who becomes empowered to provide for her children only to see them flee the nest upon graduation. It’s a tender, bittersweet coda.
Boyhood is not a joyous, euphoric fun ride; it’s reality made eminently watchable thanks to relatable characters, familiar situations, and powerful performances both in front of and behind the camera. It’s one of Richard Linklater’s finest.