Growing up: ‘Boyhood’ is an affecting feat of filmmaking


[A version of this review will appears in an upcoming edition of the Rutland Reader.]

Over the course of his career, Richard Linklater has created a body of work that is restless but never lost. Slacker, his 1991 debut was just that: a meandering look at a day in the life of Austin’s weirdo Gen-Xers. It’s a film of tangents where the camera slides from one character to another seemingly without any sense of plot or purpose. Piecemeal, Slacker feels scattered, but as a whole, it’s cohesive and entrancing.

Since then, Linklater has turned out films that have similarly slid from genre to genre. He’s done teen comedies (Dazed and Confused), surreal, quasi-philosophical cartoons (Waking Life), sprawling love stories (the “Before Sunrise), down the middle comedies (School of Rock), and darkly comic true crime stories (Bernie). Linklater may be a chameleon of genres, but his films share a warmth, optimism, and love for the characters that belie his hand.

Boyhood, Linklater’s latest film, is a moving, ambitious feat of cinema. Filmed over the course of 12 years, the story follows the life of six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows into adulthood. The result is impressive. Where most productions would use different child actors and makeup tricks to age the cast, the 12-year-long shooting schedule allows the characters to age naturally. The young Mason you meet at the film’s outset is the same actor you see in the closing shot.

The main cast is small, but the talent runs deep. Coltrane, who literally grew up on the set of this film, does a fine job with Mason, a quiet, sensitive boy with an artist’s soul, who reads Vonnegut in junior high and sees the world through the lens of his camera.

Mason’s older sister Samantha, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, is a confident straight-A student for whom high school and life in general seems to be a little bit easier to navigate.

Patricia Arquette, as Mason’s mother Olivia, is a devoted, loving parent who tries her best despite her terrible taste in men. And Linklater staple Ethan Hawke shows up as Mason Sr., the absent dad whose character arc is one of the film’s nicest demonstrations of just how much people can change when given time and the will to do so.

While the focus may be on the growth of the child characters over the dozen years the film encapsulates, the maturation of the adults is just as compelling. As parents, Olivia and Mason are imperfect, but the desire to improve is there. They acknowledge their shortcomings, and work to fix them even when they fail.

Throughout the film, Linklater sprinkles in numerous historical touchstones to help orient the audience. Events like the Iraq War and the 2008 election provide grounding to scenes, and occasionally a bit of humorous opinionating from characters. But in these moments, the film is never preachy or didactic; views are expressed with a well meaning albeit shallow understanding that makes them feel inoffensive and familiar — like that parent or friend who has strong opinions about headlines they read on Facebook.

Much of Boyhood is similarly mundane. That’s not a knock. It’s within that banality where Linklater finds truth. There are no shocking twists or high-stakes drama here. But that lack of big moments in no way diminishes the film’s tension. Watching these kids grow up over the course of this film, I felt a twinge of anxiety; the sort real parents must feel every time their children leave the house. Scenes of adolescent high jinks, teenage parties, or distracted driving all left me fretting that something tragic was surely around the corner.

But while injury, death, and addiction were all probabilities, Linklater steers clear of that sort of obvious tension. Instead, he chooses to tell a simple story that is no less affecting. The emotion is heavy here, but it is never overwhelming or melodramatic. In true Linklater fashion, there is a brightness here that will leave you smiling long after you’ve wiped away the tears.