This won’t be filled with spoilers, but if you are like me and prefer to go to a film as fresh as possible, you shouldn’t read any more than this paragraph. Boyhood depicts a boy’s life from ages 6 to 18 – 1st to 12th grade – and, more significantly, it was filmed over the course of twelve years. Thus, everyone in it legitimately ages as the story progresses. This unique creative process elevates Boyhood to be one of the most singular and powerful pieces of art I’ve ever encountered. Because it is such an immersive depiction of life, it deeply enhanced my perspective on life. For those that seek to understand and connect, I can’t recommend the film highly enough.
It’s not a particularly unique story or intensely plot-driven, often opting for humble, small moments and those adjacent to big occasions, but literally seeing change happen and feeling growth in such a palpable way is so riveting it doesn’t matter. As director Richard Linklater said during the Q&A afterwards, “I don’t want you thinking about the method, but you can’t hide it.” I enjoyed the chance to hear Linklater shed more light on this ambitious undertaking. He is one of my creative heroes, largely for how well he manages to blend intriguing narrative constructs with human stories. I couldn’t believe that over twelve years there were only 39 official shoot days. He said it was “collaboration with an unknown future” (a great way to describe living in general, no?) and described making it as “summer camp meets family reunion.” Acknowledging the risks of such a long shoot, he said, “There was no escape hatch,” and everyone laughed when he said approaching Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette to play the boy’s parents, he asked “What are you doing for the next 12 years?”
The most critical piece of casting, though, was the boy at the center of it all: Mason Jr. onscreen, Ellar Coltrane in real life. The young actor, who aged from 6 to 18 just as his character did, was excellent. Linklater hinted at the enormity of the pressure on choosing his lead, how each choice would spark a completely different film. He chose to go with “an arty, ethereal kid.” Ellar’s performance never feels self-conscious, or like acting at all, but rather natural and compelling. He’s the crucial anchor of a family unit that is the film’s most primary element (leading me to suspect Boyhood will have an even stronger impact on parents). It is testament to the skill of Ellar, Ethan, Patricia, and Lorelei Linklater as sister Samantha that they make it feel exactly as such, given the production schedule. Yes, Lorelei is Richard’s daughter. It was humorous when he mentioned an exchange that happened one year when she was having second thoughts: “Dad, can my character die?” “No.”
Seeing Ellar grow up makes us feel like we know him, so it did not surprise me when he was asked how much he has in common with the character Mason Jr. and what might be different. Ellar’s response crystallized exactly how I felt about the similarities and differences between the film and my life: “It’s a different experience but emotionally the same.” I didn’t age from 6 to 18 between 2002 and 2013 in Texas, but since I did live through those ages, lived through those years, have a family, and do come from somewhere, a lot resonated. The specificity allows the film to tap into universal truths about family, friendship, romantic relationships, work, identity, and more, and it’s peppered with unobtrusive cultural signifiers like Harry Potter, Dragon Ball Z, the beginnings of the Iraq War, Obama’s 2008 election, Nintendo Wii, and ever-advancing cell phones. I guarantee you will find at least one moment that holds a mirror to your life in a visceral way.
I liked how music was used to represent the passage of time. The soundtrack emphasizes songs from each year it covers, though there is some older music and a few original tunes, too, since Mason Sr. is a musician. The eclecticism of the contemporary music was a nice touch. The film opens with Coldplay, ends with Arcade Fire, and hits Sheryl Crow, Soulja Boy, Wilco, Gotye, and many others in between. Linklater remarked that he tried to have a score but it didn’t work because he realized the film “can’t have some other hand outside guiding it.”
Boyhood has such a fascinating approach to storytelling. It feels like home videos because there is nothing that calls attention to it being a film, like the soundtrack or the complete lack of any text to say it’s a new year. The biggest signal of a jump forward is probably new haircuts, which I found so true to life. This places some responsibility on the viewer because, even with such strong, expressive acting, there is little exposition to account for the gaps in time that we know have happened. We inevitably bring in our own assumptions, feelings, and experiences, which heightens our sense of empathy with those onscreen. Without giving anything away, there are so many delightful scenes, and they often showcase a distinct visual style and Linklater’s gift for dialogue.
The cumulative effect is a profound look at what shapes a person and also what it simply means to live. Boyhood is a moving, rewarding, wonderful film. I loved it. I hope you go see it.