Writer-director Richard Linklater filmed his coming-of-age drama “Boyhood” over a period of 12 years. He used the same actors throughout the production. It’s a remarkable way to make a movie, requiring a huge commitment from filmmaker and cast.
In “Boyhood,” children really do grow up. As time goes by, there are marriages, divorces, moves from city to city, school to school. For the younger characters, friends, teachers, stepfathers, bullies, boyfriends and girlfriends come and go.
Despite the epic length of time Linklater covers in “Boyhood” and the film’s extraordinary production schedule, he’s created an intimate, naturalistic movie. “Boyhood” progresses the way life does, through growing pains, successes, disappointments, breakthroughs, humiliations and banalities.
The audience meets Mason when he’s 6. Sprawled in the grass, he looks like a dreamer. Mason evolves into a boy who doubts and questions. In the conservative Texas communities where his mother moves the family, he’s something of an outsider but always a resilient survivor.
Mason’s older sister, Samantha, is a little princess, mercilessly irritating her younger brother with her impression of Britney Spears, choreography included. The director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater, co-stars as Samantha. It’s a convenient choice, but the daughter-actress, who also appeared in the director’s 2001 film, “Waking Life,” is a natural in the role of bratty big sister.
Ellar Coltrane plays Mason from first grade to his character’s freshman year at college. He’s a quiet boy, not a troublemaker in an aggressive way. Yet Mason follows his own path. He’ll also object to things, especially his mother’s choice of husbands.
Patricia Arquette co-stars as Mason’s and Samantha’s mom, Olivia. Divorced from the children’s father, she’s a single mother as the story begins. Apparently not a woman who’s had advantages or great luck in her life so far, she’s struggling to lift herself to a place where she can support her family.
Ethan Hawke co-stars as Mason and Samantha’s father, Mason Sr. Hawke’s performance as the elder Mason and Linklater’s script present the character as a likable, upbeat guy who loves his children. Early on, Mason Sr. wants to live with Olivia and their children again, but being a musician, his ability to support a family is doubtful.
The hostile exchange Olivia and Mason Sr. have as their children watch from a window suggests the four of them will never live together again. And then restless Olivia moves herself and the children to Houston.
“Mom,” Mason asks, “do you still love Dad? … What if after we move he’s trying to find us and can’t?”
“Your mother is a piece of work,” Mason Sr. tells the children later. “I think you know that.”
Mason Sr. is a piece of work, too, but Olivia’s subsequent bad marriages reinforce her first husband’s observation. As for the elder Mason’s imperfection, he forgets that he promised to give Mason Jr. his classic Pontiac GTO on his son’s 16th birthday.
“No, I don’t remember,” Mason Sr. says. “I never said that.”
“I remember,” Mason Jr. insists. “I was in third grade.”
In “Boyhood,” Linklater revisits territory he covered in his previous films “Dazed and Confused,” “Slacker” and “Before Sunrise,” especially teen parties, slacking and the awkward first steps of blossoming relationships.
But “Boyhood” transcends the director’s previous work and conventional movie storytelling in general. It’s so true to the way parents and children interact, speak to and treat each other, as well as the outer circles of people that surround families. “Boyhood” is almost a documentary, albeit a documentary rendered through the eyes of an artist.
Too realistic to be inspirational but too genuine to fault, “Boyhood” is, against all odds, a cohesive, lyrical cinematic feat not likely to be repeated any time soon.