12 Years of Life: Special, deeply felt "Boyhood" jogs the memory again and again
164 min., rated R.
Life really does pass us by, as it is basically a compilation of small, ordinary moments that we can only experience once. Writer-director Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" understands this universal notion more than any other American release, whilst showcasing a daring evolution and milestone in the filmmaking form. Anyone familiar with Linklater and his "Before Sunrise"/"Before Sunset"/"Before Midnight" pictures knows that he is committed as committed gets when it comes to filmmaking. With his latest passion project—the ne plus ultra of a long-gestating passion project—he made quite the gamble by shooting in three-day increments for thirty-nine days over a span of twelve years from 2001 to 2013, with the same set of actors, and, boy, his leap of faith paid off big time. Taking biographical journeys and cinema to the next level, "Boyhood" goes beyond an inspired, unprecedented stunt, gimmick, or experiment and comes out a visionary, all-encompassing time capsule made up of moments that, without a single falsehood, feel real and full. As one watches, it offers timeless, eye-opening insight into the human experience and inspires to reflect upon the moments in his or her own life.
From a first-grader to a college freshman in Texas, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) experiences life and we get to see the whole transformation. When we first meet him, he's at the most comfortable time in his life, lying on the grass at his elementary school and looking up at the clouds as he waits for his divorced, single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). She raises 7-year-old Mason and 8-year-old Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) without the help of their absentee father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a cool, struggling musician who's been trying to find work in Alaska but returns and tries making frequent appearances in his kids' lives. Once Olivia decides to go back to school for psychology, she packs up her kids and makes the move to Houston to temporarily live with her mom. Mason and Samantha experience new schools, new friends and new homes, and then they adopt a couple of new stepfathers along the way. Eventually over the years, Mason finds his true passion in photography and art, and then at 19, he gets the chance to experience first love and heartbreak. C'est la vie.
A bittersweet, inclusive visitation with a family whose lives we are completely invested in and grow up with for two-and-a-half-plus hours, "Boyhood" is about nothing and everything. To clarify, there is no plot in the traditional sense (even for a coming-of-ager), no precise structure or plot points to knock off, just the progress of growing up as if we are eavesdropping on someone's actual life. It would seem like a lot of ground to cover, even with cherry-picking certain life events, but the film chronicles boyhood—as well as motherhood, fatherhood, and "teenagehood"—and feels enriched by Linklater's attunement to veritable truth, sensitivity, and recognizably human characters. Beyond the physical changes of inevitable aging, we see a great metamorphosis in everyone, particularly Mason, and the storytelling never feels overly meandering like an unfocused child's "and-then-this-happened" story. All of the rites of passage as a daydreaming child and a rebellious teenager are on display here, from moving out of town without saying bye to friends, to despising a bad haircut, to saying the pledge of allegiance in elementary school, to attending a midnight "Harry Potter" book release, to experiencing the passing of a love note in class, to cringing as your father gives you the contraception talk. Viewers conditioned to Hollywoodized family dramas will expect an upcoming tragedy or a series of unfortunate events filled with melodramatic theatrics, but no one has really seen a film like this before. The best kinds of films have the telling details without actually beating us over the head, and "Boyhood" is full of the telling details. Without a single time card or voice-over narration announcing to us how much time has passed, Linklater subtly weaves in time-appropriate musical cues, from a joyous opening cued to Coldplay's "Yellow" and then other samplings from Sheryl Crow's "Soak Up the Sun" to The Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize?" to Soulja Boy's "Crank That (Soulja Boy)" to Phoenix's "1901" and Family of the Year's "Hero." Technical aesthetics are unshowy but faultless, going in step with the film's verisimilitude.
Back in 2002, Linklater's hopes to keep the same cast of actors for a whole decade must have seemed like a risky proposition, but luckily, no one went back on their commitment. Everyone is so immensely lived-in, it's as if no one is even Acting; that and the casting fits like a glove (the younger actors look like real-life siblings). Natural and identifiable during all ages in playing Mason, Ellar Coltrane exhibits pure growth in maturity from a little boy to a young man. Lorelai Linklater (Richard's daughter) hits every note dead-on as Mason's slightly older sister Samantha. Emanating humor and naturalism without ever feeling overly precocious or affected, she begins as a little brat, tormenting and waking up her brother by singing Britney Spears' "Oops!…I Did It Again" with her own dance moves, and then tries to find herself as a teenager. One can only hope she will continue acting as she really made an impression for a 12-year phase in her life. A long collaborator with Richard Linklater, Ethan Hawke is exceptional, diversifying a written role that already feels clear of deadbeat-dad clichés. Mason Sr. is trying his best, picking his kids up in his Pontiac GTO and taking them to the bowling alley or a Houston Astros baseball game, and then ends up starting his own family, while still keeping Mason and Samantha well in his life. Lest we forget (though it'd be impossible), Patricia Arquette pours her heart and soul into the role of mother Olivia and, as a result, turns in the most beautifully nuanced work of her career. Her poignant moment of realization comes when sitting in a new apartment and watching Mason packing up for college after rearing two kids, steadily working towards her career as a university professor and then suffering through two failed marriages; she finally breaks down and says, "I just thought there would be more."
By being twelve years in the making, "Boyhood" is an achievement that deserves to be celebrated in a class all by itself. It not only has a fascinating behind-the-scenes story to tell, but the finished film is immeasurably graceful, moving, introspective, and special. The whole of the film is encapsulated by the reverse quote of "seizing the moment"—"the moment seizes us"—and the cumulative power doesn't hit until the very end. It also feels like one of writer-director Linklater's most personal films, one that he never gave up on and seems to bring a larger context to his collection of work with common threads and similarly relaxed pacing recalling 1991's "Slacker," 1993's "Dazed and Confused," and even the "Before" trilogy. Without inflating or underselling its groundbreaking worth, Linklater's film is just extraordinarily executed, a very accomplished, one-of-a-kind work of art. To watch twelve years unfold in two hours and forty-four minutes is a sublime, rewarding experience.