Featuring; Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Loralei Linklater
Director: Richard Linklater
Running Time: 2 hrs 45 mins.
by Avi Davis
Coming of age movies are not exactly uncommon in Hollywood. That is perhaps natural for an industry which focuses its steely gaze on an age range somewhere between the years 12 and 18. So I might then be excused for my expectation that Boyhood would turn out to be just another boy meets girl flick, a rumination on the tawdry and confused sex lives of our over stimulated youth.
As a result nothing quite prepared me for this quiet miracle of a movie – two hours and 45 minutes which offered a sensitive journey undertaken in the company of a young boy who could almost be our own younger brother or son.
Director Richard Linklater took twelve years to film his subjects, using the same actors as they aged through the various time periods and bringing the two children Mason Jr.( Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Loralei Linklater) and their divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) through the trials of growing up. Through its tender revelations, the children emerge from their mother’s tempestuous 12 year argosy (which includes two disastrous marriages, several hurried moves across Texas, new schools and new loneliness) and into adulthood without being broken or tarnished by the experience.
This is a movie about growing up – that might be true enough; but it is not only the children who we see develop. Both of the parents also endure the growing pains of maturity- Olivia as she moves from young and desperate single motherhood to capable provider, doubling as home maker; and the often absent father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) who moves from his free spirited iconoclasm and Disney Dad personality to a recognition of his adult responsibilities and expectations.
Yet the quiet, utter brilliance of the movie is in its subtle examination of children. Rarely do you feel the intrusion of the adult film maker. The plot moves along in a natural progression and the time lapses, sometimes several years in length, don’t seem to matter; we are so engrossed in the spectacle of seeing a sweet, sensitive young boy mature before our eyes that we can forgive the rough seams needed to patch the story together. True enough there is a script, but it is a rather loose one and the actors have been given quite a bit of free rein to ad lib and provide their own dialogue. This lends the production a lightness and elasticity which takes it well beyond the affectation and casual manipulation that movie audiences are so often forced to endure from over bearing directors.
The subtlety extends to the marvelous use of the actors’ facial expressions to presage the onset of a plot development or of an event which has already happened off screen. The six -year-old Mason Jr., for instance, upon meeting his mother’s university sociology professor, senses that the teacher’s interest in his mother is more than educational and this sudden realization is caught with a sharp glance at the man himself- a panicked alarm bell that warns him (and us) of something in his life that is about to change. Sure enough the next scene has the university professor returning home from his honeymoon with Mason Jr.’s mother in tow.
An almost identical scene plays out several years later when as a young college professor herself, Olivia has invited some of her mature aged students back to the family home for a Thanksgiving dinner; and in one of these guests Mason senses his mother’s more than casual interest. The next scene, a few years beyond, portrays a family dinner, yet this time it is the contemptuous look in the mother’s eye as she responds to a comment from her beer guzzling new husband that explains all we need to know of what has transpired in the interval between scenes.
As the movie progresses through the various stages of Mason’s life we see him confronting the many challenges all boys must endure at one time or another: the bullying of younger schoolboys; the experiments with drugs and alcohol; fumbling through the unknown mysteries of sex; the heartbreak of youthful romance and the desperate attempt to latch on to an individual identity. Yet though these changes – which are prefigured by changes in hairstyle, physique, facial hair, the political environment and music, Mason’s inner self changes little; his goal has remained constant – right into his late youth: the dreamy, sensitive child desperately searching for something real to hold onto.
This perhaps provides the special magic of Boyhood. It is an argument for the notion that while our environment changes and we move through different styles, fashions and experiences, the inner person within us rarely changes. Character, Linklater seems to be saying, is formed very early in the human species – perhaps even before we emerge from the womb – and while it will receive heavy bombardment from environmental factors, it remains resistant to change. As we leave the bearded Mason on his first day of college, sitting shyly and a little awkwardly with a girl he has just met on a rocky outcrop in a national park, his wonder of the world and his sense of his place in it, does not seem to have changed much at all from the moment we had met him two hours and 45 minutes earlier, as a six-year- old, staring questioningly at the blue sky.
Those of us lucky enough to have children of our own also know how the changes in them can be captured by certain occurrences which register within us with something akin to shock: The day we transform from “Daddy” into “Dad”; the long silence in the drive home from school when all answers to our questions are suddenly monosyllabic; the tendency to reject any advice we might have to offer and the growing contempt for our musical tastes.
But the real changes in our children are often imperceptible because they take place beyond our reach or our observation. It is Boyhood’s special achievement in allowing a view of the developing mind of a child, which ultimately elevates the film above almost any other coming of age movie I have seen. It is an education in itself and makes me long for another Linklater film, to appear in 12 years time, which will chronicle the same boy’s struggles through the pains, struggles, mistakes and ultimate triumphs of early adulthood.