Writer and director Richard Linklater's latest release had an intriguing gestation, filmed in and around Houston over a twelve-year timeframe from 2002 to 2013. He used a core of actors who came together for short stints to move the story along, following developments in their lives suggested and scripted by the actors themselves. The film is almost a sequential montage of home movies, a time-lapse study in maturation. A front door opens and something looks different: Yes, it's a few months later.
Growing up can seem interminable to those growing up: Boyhood is a genuine bladder buster, clocking in at 166 minutes. Be forewarned! Yet it is always magnetic, never self-indulgent.
The four principals are the boy, Mason, Jr., played from age 6 to 18 by Ellar Coltrane, who started this project at the age of seven. His older sister Samantha, played by Lorelei Linklater. The self-realizing mother, Olivia, portrayed by Patricia Arquette; and the somewhat irresponsible father, Mason, Sr., by Ethan Hawke.
Covering twelve years of life as a series of milestones, the film has an epic quality, while remaining almost obsessively intimate. Critics have compared it to a Tolstoy novel. There are references to the beginning of Dubya's Iraq War, five years later to the election that Barack Obama won, and toward the end to the NSA's far-reaching antennae into our lives. But one might cavil that its tight focus on the family ignores much that is happening in the wider world. Perhaps the concerns of boyhood do not generally extend that far.
And yet it is clear what side Linklater is on: The people's. Indicated in a pile-up of details, about neighborhoods, schools, mortgages, discipline and the work ethic, the job market, male chauvinism, bullying and domestic violence, the power adults wield over children, romance, marriage, divorce, and blended families, sex, alcohol, religion.
It's rough being a kid in a society that treats so wide a swath of its citizens as so much human trash. Viewers will simply have to extrapolate for themselves all the other kids on the block who don't make it out of childhood in one piece. We know there's a lot of broken promises in life. Linklater has chosen the universal title Boyhood. It's up to us to figure out how generalized this particular story can be.
I'm reminded of those one-minute YouTube videos addressed to young GLBT kids, but really to every kid, from people telling them, "It Gets Better." You get the feeling that if Mason and Samantha can just hang in long enough to go off to college, they're gonna be OK. The director seems to feel that America is still a land of opportunity, but dammit, they don't make it easy.
A nice touch: Mason starts driving, and his vehicle is a Toyota truck, the TO and the TA erased, so only YO remains, as he begins finding his way around as the young "I" of a fully formed personality.
Make no mistake: This is not just a coming of age story about the boy. All of the core characters grow up, mature, come into their own over these twelve years, leaving detritus behind that no longer serves a useful purpose. The implication is that none of us ever stops growing and changing-and that a riveting film could conceivably be constructed about any life, given enough resources and expertise.
Linklater's recent films include Fast Food Nation, Me and Orson Welles, and Before Midnight. Boyhood won a Silver Bear for the director at the Berlin Film Festival, and it also scored big at the San Francisco, SXSW, and Seattle film festivals. Much deserved. See it.
Photo: "Boyhood" Facebook page.
Boyhood, 165 mins., rated R
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater