Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an ambitious, imperfect, and true story of adolescence – a work of fiction that contains real truths about our lives. I walked into the theater a big fan of Linklater as a director and writer, and left in awe of him as a storyteller.
Boyhood was filmed over something like 12 years with the same core of actors, a few of whom started off the project as small children. Main protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) ages from six to eighteen years old as the film progresses. It sounds gimmicky, but it doesn’t play out that way because Linklater doesn’t focus on it. It’s essential to the film’s emotional gravity though, in that it removes distractions like age makeup and slightly-off doppelganger older selves of characters we become attached to and allows us to really fall in with the group. Around halfway through the film, it occurred to me that the actors in Boyhood were so perfectly in the pocket because they had become invested in a project unlike anything that had been done before. Their characters became surrogate lives that they revisited every couple of years. Lives that became enmeshed with their own, and so became more subtly rich as the film progressed. The performances are just fucking incredible.
I am a product of divorced parents. My parents split when I was too young to understand anything about it other than fear and uncertainty. It felt sudden and violent. I was in eighth grade when I realized that all but two of my friends had divorced parents as well. It felt significant to know that, but I didn’t know what to do with it. Boyhood is a lot of things, but for me, it’s a film about divorce. It spares us the traumatic details of the break-up between two twenty-three year olds (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) with two small children, and picks up a couple of years later. This treatment sets the bar for the film’s delivery. Again and again in Boyhood, Linklater doesn’t present us with the stereotypical cataclysmic events in Mason’s life. Instead, we’re allowed a look at its trajectory in between the explosions propelling it. But it all stems from the Big Bang of divorce. It isn’t the focus of the film, but it is always there, a rippling echo of the rift that forms Mason and his life’s story.
Mason and sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) are typical kids with an absentee dad. Samantha is defiant and attention/approval seeking early on. Mason is more withdrawn, though not entirely morose. Coltrane is especially apt at delivering the trick so many children of divorce develop early on; appearing “fine” when you are anything but. It broke my heart every time.
Both kids are enamored with father Mason Sr, who is somewhere in Alaska when the film starts. Every kid wants to believe in their dad, even if they know he’s totally blowing it. Hawke turns up early and often throughout the film, feeling his way back into a situation he clearly left in shambles some years before.
Watching Ethan Hawke clumsily navigate the situation early on is cringe-inducing, but spot on. He’s basically unapologetic about his absence, but there’s a forgivable sweetness to him. He’s maybe a bit of a dufus, but not a bad guy. Boyhood gives Mason Sr a lot of room to expand as he begins to spend more time with his kids on weekends, even though they spend most of their lives with Mom. Linklater is focused on the measure of his emotional impact on his kids than time spent with them. As the film unfolds, like watching someone else’s memory, we understand how Mason Sr. has the luxury of being more laid back than Mom. While she’s holding day to day life together, he and Mason get to have conversations about the existence of magic in the world.
Patricia Arquette has the least glamorous of the major roles, and she feels just a little awkward in the early stages, but really comes into the role a few years in. We are always sympathetic to her causes, at first a single mom attempting to have a social life, then as a working mother and student, the abused wife of an alcoholic, and finally, a working professional and empty nester. At each turn, her position is at least a little undesirable, but she delivers it all with a wonderfully exhausted grace. In the final turn of the film, she’s allowed a rare collapse into remorse, embodying what has been the lonesome and thankless task raising two kids mostly on her own. I realized I was guilty of viewing her in the same utilitarian light as many of Boyhood’s characters had throughout the story, and I was hit by a rogue wave of empathy for her.
And maybe it’s empathy that’s the key to Boyhood’s successful emotional impact. I’ve never felt so in tune with all of a film’s characters. It is not a sad sack film. It is a film about growing up in an imperfect family in America. Eventually, it’s a film about figuring out how to do it. I was never concerned that anything too dramatic was going to happen to Mason, though a few traumatic things do happen. But again, that’s not what this film is about. It’s not about the drama of Mason’s dad working his way back into his life, or his mom fighting with his step dad, or school, or his friends, or girlfriends. It is what he does with these things, what they do to him, and how the ever present “right now” becomes the story of a life.
– justin midnight