“Boyhood” is to coming-of-age movies what “Act of Valor” is to war movies. The latter used active-duty Navy SEALs to portray SEALs, and “Boyhood” used an actual boy, filmed over a period of 12 years, coming of age.
Nobody’d ever done it before. Not like this. Is it interesting? Ever see someone age from 6 to 18 in three hours? The same person, not played by various actors of different ages? It’s a game-changer. Groundbreaking, if not exactly mind-blowing.
An Innovative Idea
For a few days annually, starting in 2002, Linklater shot 10 minutes of film. He cast nonactor Ellar Coltrane as the titular young boy, Mason; Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason’s divorced parents, Mason Sr. and Olivia; and his own daughter Lorelei as Mason’s older sister, Samantha.
A narrative drama, it feels—surprise, surprise—slightly like a documentary. Mason lives an “average” (lower middle-class, Caucasian, heterosexual) American boy’s life.
It’s a movie full of excellent, classic boy stuff: bike riding, bragging, poring over feminine lingerie catalogs with buddies, collecting snake vertebrae, moving, new schools, divorce, step-dads, alcoholism, bullies, video games, standing in bookstore lines for “Harry Potter” wearing Potter glasses, teenage hobbies, obsessions, first girlfriends, first drinks, and a succession of technologically evolving mobile phones.
Which American teen-defining category will Mason fall into? His pouty, ever-so-slightly androgynous movie star looks (hints of Peter Dinklage and Justin Bieber in the facial features) open a few categories to him. His walk is a little awkward as a young boy, so probably he won’t be a natural jock. Is the emerging punky-artsy category the real Ellar? Or is it Mason?
Ultimately, what we get to see is a normal life captured in a unique new way. Watching someone age 12 years in three hours is slightly magical. But innovation aside, what becomes quickly clear is that, while a new format and delivery system, this is classic director Richard Linklater territory. It’s not so much new as it is bigger.
One of Linklater’s signature preoccupations is to film the same actors over long periods of time; he’s already documented Ethan Hawke, who got his start in “Dead Poets Society,” aging over 16 years in the trilogy “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” and “Before Midnight.” “Boyhood” offers more of Ethan Hawke, aging over a decade plus a few years.
The film is also related to Linklater’s breakout hit, “Slacker,” as well as his cult-classic high school hit, “Dazed and Confused,” insofar as all three films take place in Texas. And all of them deal with youth, high school, and college-age characters, talking in low-key ways about profound issues, reflecting Linklater’s own philosophy-major background and seeker’s mind.
Fun facts: The same actor who played a liquor-store cashier in “Dazed” plays a liquor-store cashier in “Boyhood.” Another tribute is the 1970 black Pontiac GTO that Hawke’s character drives. “Dazed” had the same make, in yellow. Linklater must’ve driven a “Goat” in high school. Or coveted a football team buddy’s Goat.
What does this 12-year shooting-schedule artifice, this gimmick, ultimately bequeath us? What do we get from this three hours of magical normality? Could 3, 4, or 12 different well-cast actors show us Mason growing up? Sure. They could tell us the same story.
Watching Ellar grow up on screen is authentic in the sense that real SEALs, not acting but doing what SEALs do in their natural habitat while having a camera follow them around, are authentic. It becomes a genre unto itself. Of course, memorizing and speaking lines that someone else wrote is acting. But again—what do we stand to gain from this particular brand of aging-authenticity?
Basically, we appreciate in “Boyhood” the director’s (and cast and crew’s) commitment to a new, time-devouring, paradigm-shifting attempt at evolving and augmenting the art of storytelling. But is that it? Seems like a lot of trouble to tell a story about growing up. The magic of watching SEALs in their natural habitat is that you see stuff you’ve never seen before, like three-foot flames coming off the muzzle of a minigun due to the use of live rounds not normally used in movies because of the high degree of danger. The lightbulb goes off over your head: “That’s why they call it a ‘firefight.'” The magic of “Boyhood” is more elusive. I’ll come back to it.
Linklater Leans Toward Enlightenment
“Boyhood” addresses the same issues and questions that Linklater’s been asking throughout his body of work, namely, “What’s the point of everything?” In “Dazed,” a character says, “I’d like to quit thinking of the present, like right now, as some minor, insignificant preamble to something else.” In “Boyhood,” it’s “Life is a preordained slog.”
All Linklater’s films are studies in banality, ringed round and infused with a quiet call to enlightenment. He’s clearly an advocate of learning to live in the moment and cherish the present. As Ethan Hawke expressed it at a July 8, 2014, press conference in New York, “It’s an epic about minutiae.” More specifically, as Linklater himself put it at the same press conference, “It was always going to be a portrait of growing up, and bumbling through parenting.”
So since his daughter, Lorelei Linklater (how’s that for an alliterative name?), is in the film playing Ellar’s sister, Richard Linklater might as well be doing a simple photo-video documentation of his own personal bumbling adventure through parenting: Instagram on a grand scale.
And yet one senses Linklater’s ongoing awareness of, and struggle to understand paradox; namely, that learning to stand still in the now might actually constitute a journey leading somewhere else. He just doesn’t seem to be sure what road to get on, and which color GTO to drive there.
Perhaps, now that there’s been a “Boyhood,” next up will be a “Manhood,” and we’ll get to watch Mason’s manhood rite of passage. Maybe in the making of that film, Richard Linklater will find what he’s been looking for.
But here, finally, is the elusive magic of “Boyhood”: There might never have been quite such a potent, nostalgic walk down memory lane for men as that provided in “Boyhood,” except for possibly “Stand By Me.” Just like there had never been quite such a nostalgic walk down memory lane for American high schoolers until “Dazed and Confused” came along, which is why it’s now considered a cult classic. And “Before Sunrise” is possibly the most potent, nostalgic walk down memory lane for anyone remembering their first love.
Linklater is a master at distilling the essence of nostalgia. He’s a marksman in this regard. So the gimmick of using the same actor growing up is not what gets the job done; it’s more like an over-the-shoulder, looking-in-the-mirror, fun trick shot. Linklater would have hit the bull’s-eye regardless.
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater
Running Time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release Date: Aug. 15, 2014
Rating: 4 stars out of 5