Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a transcendental film that elevates story-telling by simplifying it. This film could be titled: American Boy Growing Up in Texas in the 2000s. It is a coming of age story but instead of being about just one person, this film allows peeks into the ever-changing minds, lives and loves of the boy’s entire family. Made over a span of 12 years, the film was an experiment in concept. The crew would reconnect every year to film new sections. It was a huge risk that paid off in the best possible ways.
Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) gets in trouble at school for forgetting to hand in his homework and trying to sharpen rocks in the pencil sharpener while his sister, Sam (Lorelei Linklater), has a major attitude and straight A’s. Their mom is sick of their simple life and struggling to live pay-check to pay-check. They re-locate to Houston so that she can go back to college and her mom can help with childcare.
The story leaps ahead without any of the gimmicky forward and backward story structure, just a naturally paced, forward thrust. Linklater does a masterful job of showing us the setting with what we see and hear in the background. The film opens in 2002. We see a Sears Catalog,
Beauty and the Beast sheets and hear Coldplay’s Yellow. Anyone who catches these references will automatically understand the impact that each had in their own lives, whether they were children or adults. If they were alive in America at that time, they will recognize these cultural benchmarks.
Besides the aforementioned pop culture hints as to the time periods, Linklater allows his actors to age, shows their changes in attire, homes and loved ones to show the passage of time. On several occasions the Texas car registration is visible in the corner of the windshield which reveals the years ticking by.
What makes the film different is that it doesn’t feel like a fictional film, it feels like a documentary or what reality television could be. There are no judgments made on the characters by the film-maker. The characters judge each other, but there are no good guys or bad guys here, just people doing their thing and trying to figure out why and how to do it right. The acting is flawlessly under stated and natural. The risk of hiring un-known child performers and following them for a 12 year span paid off generously.
The sometimes sophomoric humor of Linklater (Dazed and Confused) can be found in chunks throughout the movie, but it has a tone closer to his Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), which are dialog and thought heavy.
Boyhood is not just a coming of age tale, it is also a love story to Texas. From Houston, to San Marcos, to Big Bend to Austin, Linklater shares the small homes, alleyways, storefronts, clubs and expansive wilderness that Texans celebrate with pride. The location adds nuance to the significance of some of the plot points. When the kids are hanging Obama signs in 2008, and when 15 year old Mason is given a Bible for his birthday, we can relate a different intensity because of the social intensity of these two topics in the region.
Linklater has drawn strong female characters in the film. Patricia Arquette as Olivia, almost single-handedly raises two children while earning an undergrad degree and eventually a doctoral degree to teach psychology. She changes physically as well, leaping out of the Hollywood leading lady norm of a tiny woman to a full figured woman. As she ages she remains beautiful, insightful and appealing to men, which unfortunately remains a novelty in American cinema.
Boyhood is long, slow-paced, has no major plot points and is not for everyone, but for those who enjoy introspection, candid glimpses into other worlds and reflection; it may be the best film of the year.