Richard Linklater’s sprawling 2 hour and 45 minute magnum opus details 12 years in the life of a family, and principally that of a young male lead, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a six year old boy when our drama begins. Mason is like many juveniles. He happens to live in Texas in a typical town like many others. He has a sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) who is older by one year and a Mom played by Patricia Arquette. Olivia is a divorced single parent. A struggling working class woman, Olivia is raising her children the best way she knows how. We see Mom’s choices revolve around her family at the expense of being able to go out and have fun. Mason does have an absentee father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). He doesn’t appear right away but then shows up rather unexpectedly one day to take the kids bowling. Once he is introduced to the audience, his presence becomes a bit more familiar. Given the narrative breadth, Boyhood could have just as easily been called Motherhood, Fatherhood or simply Childhood.
As the story progresses, the principals grow older. In most movies this would involve casting different people to represent the kids at various stages as they got older. Makeup would probably be used to age the adults. Instead, Boyhood was actually filmed over the course of 12 years so as the characters mature, so do the actors. It’s a fascinating development that infuses the tale with an allure not found in the way a traditional picture is shot over a few months. Richard Linklater not only utilizes the appearance of his performers to inform the passage of time, but also little cultural touchstones in each era. These present the minutiae that makes up our everyday lives. Mason ogles the women in the underwear section of a department store catalogue, is annoyed by his sister’s rendition of “Oops! I Did It Again” by Britney Spears, and attends a book release party for the latest Harry Potter novel. These non-events are what compose a life. Individually they mean very little, but added together they represent the sum total of an existence.
Boyhood has an astounding level of characterization. The depiction of the four principals is deceptively simple. Yet it isn’t until after you contemplate the full scope of the chronicle that you fully comprehend the complexity of the portrait. The production was shot over 39 days beginning in the summer of 2002 and completed in October 2013. Mason gets taller, his voice deepens. His personality matures before our very eyes. But even more than the physical changes is the emotional evolution of a life. Linklater isn’t content to merely gives us Mason’s reality. Mom Olivia has a compelling dramatic arc as well. Incidentally, Patricia Arquette is extraordinary. This is the single greatest performance of her career. She registers fear, pain, sorrow and joy with absolute veracity. At different points, her depiction details two marriages to men of questionable character. A scene where her husband Bill interrogates the kids about their mother’s whereabouts is chilling but it gets increasingly intense when he starts checking their cell phones for calling history. Conversely there are moments that are quite moving as well. An offhand comment by Olivia to a handyman replacing their home’s water pipes will have major repercussions later. All of these vignettes immediately make an impression but they must meditate in the mind well after the saga is over. The drama advances organically and the actors perform naturally. Rarely has an individual’s developmental transitions been dramatized so imaginatively on film. Boyhood is an outstanding achievement and a magnificent paean to the simple brilliance of the human experience.