BOYHOOD may be one of the few recent coming-of-age movies that isn't just about the character's journey, or simply illuminates general themes on growing up. In fact, writer/director Richard Linklater's small film with a big heart is about your childhood and your journey. Presumptive? Perhaps. Realistic? I think so.
In fact, while watching the film I was reminded of my own self as a child, recounting similarly fragmented moments that bared little significance to me at that time but have been buried in my mind all these years. BOYHOOD fleshes out these pivotal scenes with a story that seems too simple to be so important, with honest performances that will allow you to see yourself or your own family in each of these characters.
The film, shot intermittently in real time for twelve years, tells the story of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), at first a six-year-old boy living in Texas with his sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter, Lorelai) and mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Condensed to nearly three hours on screen, the film follows Mason's journey from childhood through adolescence and eventual young adulthood--punctuated by equal levels of wide-eyed wonder, heartbreak and triumph. So real is his story that the lines between whether it is about Mason or Coltrane beautifully blurs, perhaps not so unintentionally.
But there's another parallel journey occurring simultaneously with Mason's that struck me just as much, if not more: Arquette's portrayal of a struggling single parent who doesn't always make the right decisions but has the best intentions. Through Mason's eyes we see her as a devoted mother who, despite her best efforts to build a stable home life for her two kids, later welcomes not one but two father figures who ultimately infect their structure. Coltrane's natural reaction to each new authoritative male presence--a mix between skepticism and annoyance--really resonates with me. Maybe it's because I was raised by a single mother, and too have looked at new men in her life with a somewhat threatening side eye, but these moments are particularly authentic. Arquette's passionate performance grapples with feelings of regret, frustration and bittersweet sorrow. But what is truly moving is seeing her succumb to her own happiness--having a successful career, watching her children grow up in their own ways, and even getting that unexpected compliment from their father and her first husband (played by Ethan Hawke) who reaffirmed that, hey, in spite of everything she did alright.
While Olivia is Mason's primary guardian, it's interesting to see how different his relationship is with his father, who sees him every other weekend. These semimonthly visits are when young Mason, usually a quiet, pensive kid, opens up a little and has some man-to-man time--where he can learn important things like which Beatles member was the best (hint: there is no such thing as a "best" Beatle; they were all equally perfect). When we first meet Mason Sr., however, our inclination is to judge him--partly because the absentee father trope in films teeters more toward him being useless and wholly unreliable, and partly because Hawke is so good at playing these rugged, fly-by-night characters. But Mason Sr. also goes through a metamorphosis throughout these twelve years--from part-time dad to a far more mature parent whose influence on his son is met with just as much discernment as endearment. Though Mason Jr. and his dad don't have a whole lot in common, they accept and connect on the fact that they are works in progress. Mason Sr. even says toward the end of the film that if Olivia had waited fifteen years for him to become the man he is now, he could have been the man she deserved.
Time is an essential element throughout BOYHOOD. Rather than the usual time stamps, Linklater opts to indicate time the way many of us already do when we, say, look at a picture of ourselves from the past, or watch a vintage home video--by each character's change in appearance (most obvious with Mason/Coltrane) and with the abiding soundtrack, a barometer for what many of us were listening to at the time. These little ticks of the clock, which include Coldplay's "Yellow" and Wilco's "Hate It Here," serve as audio reminders that take you back to places in our lives when they would have been most relevant. So poignant are these moments that we think we're traveling back in time along with Mason--experimenting with our hair, hitting puberty, circumventing authority, and experiencing our first real heartbreak. As he struggles to search for meaning in a world too busy to care, we begin to think about our own purpose in the world--and how we've gotten where we are today.
An audacious effort from a filmmaker whose ability to embed the audience in his stories is unmatched. Wonderfully tender, honest and sentimental without being maudlin, BOYHOOD is an incredible film that you won't want to miss.
Rating: A+ (***** out of *****)
BOYHOOD opens in theaters New York and Los Angeles on Friday.