Director Richard Linklater’s twelve-years-in-the-making, coming of age story “Boyhood,” is more than a slice of life. It’s slices of lives anchored by one character, Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who was six when filming began, eighteen when the movie wrapped.
When “Boyhood” begins with Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are being raised by their mom (Patricia Arquette). Their father (Ethan Hawke) is a sporadic presence, an absentee dad who’s trying to do better. Mason is an introverted, artistic boy, Samantha an extrovert who rolls her eyes and hates the clothes her mother chooses for her.
To tell more would do the movie a disservice because the extraordinary thing about this movie isn’t the story, it’s the performances and the scope. The story of a single mother coping with bad relationship choices as she tries to better her life and the lives of her kids isn’t particularly new.
Here it is the execution that counts.
Linklater’s decade long shoot is more than just a gimmick, it’s a technique that sucks the viewer in, much in the same way home movies, viewed many years later, can evoke deeply held feelings. Watching these characters grow up on screen, literally, brings an authenticity to the film and the story, almost like a documentary. “56 Up,” in which director Michael Apted revisits the same group of British-born adults every seven years, is similar, but “Boyhood” feels different. The narrative construct of watching the character Mason grow up on screen is one thing, but on a larger scale we’re also watching Coltrane mature and that’s what makes this movie special.
There are great performances all round—Arquette and Hawke are especially good—but Coltrane’s performance is so natural that he, whether he knew it at the time or not, is portraying each of the phases of a young man’s—almost any young man—life. He’s not a precocious child actor, but a regular kid behaving like a regular kid. His real-life awkward teenage years, for instance, bleed into the film, producing a beautiful rendering of the middle teens that feels absolutely authentic because it is.
“Boyhood” is a remarkable film but not a perfect one. At almost three hours it occasionally feels aimless, but as a chronicle of life it’s an ambitious undertaking, a moving experience about the individual moments that make a life.