You’ve never seen a film like Boyhood. Released in July, Richard Linklater’s new film is a coming-of-age story that doubles as a soaring cinematic experiment. The film took twelve years to make. The same actors play the same roles, aging naturally on screen.
Reflecting the obviously piecemeal way the film was shot, Linklater weaves a narrative that feels like home video recordings strung together. We follow one boy, Mason, from age five to eighteen. With no voice-over narration, we are simply observers watching him grow.
Interestingly, the original actors cast when the film first started shooting have not been seen on the big screen in a minute (the film is a nice return for Ethan Hawke, for example). Even the picture quality changes — filmmaking technology has advanced since the project started — and the editing style of the film’s second half differs from the first.
I feared the whole thing would be too pretentiously caught up in what it’s trying to be to have a resonating emotional impact. I was wrong. Mason, played for twelve years by Ellar Coltrane, grows into a sensitive, artistic, detached boy on the cusp of manhood. We follow him through his growth into a sensitive and misunderstood young man.
The most dynamic character of the film is Mason’s mother, played by Patricia Arquette, who deserves an Oscar nod. Her final, heartbreaking scene when Mason is packing for college had me in tears.
In his teens, Mason’s sexual orientation remains ambiguous. We assume he’s straight, or at least bisexual, until some parting looks and purple nail polish challenge that. The boy grows into a young man, wiry and intense. The film thankfully avoids classifying him as gay or straight and instead focuses on his disillusionment, his distance from his family, his need to escape.
Yes, there are imperfections. It’s hard to get believable performances out of child actors. In Mason’s early teenage years, several of his friends are preteen caricatures and the film goes a little flat. But Boyhood eventually succeeds as an intimate study of observation and evolution, an experiment we delight in seeing.