In creating “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater pulled off an unprecedented cinematic feat: filming a handful of actors for 12 years to construct a family narrative. And yet “Boyhood” is a remarkably understated film.
Watching two children grow into young adults in just over two hours can remind you of your own children’s or young relatives’ transformations: “Whoa, that went by fast.”
The boy of “Boyhood,” Mason (Ellar Coltrane), is the film’s center. Yet the story isn’t fixated on him. Raised by a single mother (Patricia Arquette) and an oblivious older sister (Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter), Mason has a lot of people pass through his life, and the casually omniscient camera spends time on a conversation between characters you won’t see again. (Just like real life.)
Mason is a passive observer, steadying a story filled with the jarring transitions youth sometime face. The rational choices his mother makes under duress result in people like a neighborhood friend or stepbrother disappearing abruptly from Mason’s life.
Yet dramatic moments in “Boyhood” are handled with naturally subdued reactions compared with other family films.
Although parents and mentors have much to gain in seeing this film, “Boyhood” could have especially powerful resonance for anyone who spent their formative years in the new millennium. This might be the first film people in their 20s watch dewy-eyed for no particular reason or scene. The nostalgia is cumulative and nuanced, featuring 12 years of generational details. Just a few moments could convince young men or women they’re seeing their own lives on screen.
The soundtrack effortlessly breezes through indie and pop hits of the last 15 years, and the original songs performed throughout have such explanatory lyrics that “Boyhood” nearly treads into musical territory.
One unique aspect of the film’s long-term approach is how the family develops.
Mason’s precocious artistic tendencies disappoint results-based teachers from elementary school, when his completed homework is found buried in his backpack, to high school, when Mason spends too much time in the darkroom.
Arquette’s character begins with the young mother’s lament: she went straight from being a child to a parent. She then spends the next 12 years tirelessly completing requisite functions and chores. By the end, she’s seated with her back to a restaurant window, eager to categorize her children’s remaining stuff before the nest is empty. Arquette’s performance is subtly show-stealing and deserves award recognition for its realism.
Life threads show how family members can know each other so well yet fail to offer support because of natural self-absorption and the dulling of a lifetime of mundane tasks. One amusing moment involves the kids’ roaming dilettante father (Ethan Hawke) hitting the brakes on the adolescent stonewall parents often encounter.
Other family films have shown this reality, but none as clearly as this new classic.