Actors age in real time in audacious, mesmerizing ‘Boyhood’
Remember the 1964 film 7 Up? It was the first in a series of extraordinary documentaries that profiled a classroom of seven-year-old British kids, who were then revisited and filmed by director Michael Apted at seven-year intervals to see how their lives were turning out. (They were 56 in 2012, when Apted last checked in.)
The evolution of lives and stories in real time is not something the movies often do. In fiction films, especially, stories are telescoped into dramatic highlights with actors of various ages playing the same part at different stages of life. Which is why Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is so refreshingly audacious. Linklater had the simple yet brilliant idea to shoot a scripted film over a period of 12 years, allowing his cast—including his child protagonists—to age naturally onscreen. It sounds like a stunt, but watching these characters grow up before our eyes (adults included), makes for a bold, moving, and utterly mesmerizing moviegoing experience.
At the center of the film is a boy named Mason. The actor who plays him, Ellar Coltrane, was seven years old when the film started shooting in 2002, and 18 when it wrapped last year. We first meet Mason and his older sister, Samantha (the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater), living in a Texas suburb with their divorced mom, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Their lives are punctuated by sporadic visits from their dad, Mason Sr. (longtime Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke), a footloose man-child who rooms with a buddy, plays indifferent country-rock guitar, and doesn’t seem to have, like, a job.
Upheaval occurs when their mom moves the kids to Houston so she can go to college and get a better-paying job. But there’ll be more moves, more new schools, even new step parents and siblings. One minute, little Mason is sniggering over a lingerie catalogue, then he’s encountering bullies, experiencing his first fast-food job and the first stirrings of romance, and waxing philosophical about robotic mind control and the meaning of life. Nothing much remarkable occurs, but it all feels so achingly true.
It’s fun to watch these kids grow up, but it’s not just the kids who come of age; the adults also evolve in ways that resonate, sometimes painfully, with the audience. (Olivia’s unfortunate romances, although they always begin with such promise, tend to have uncomfortable, sometimes scary repercussions.)
Linklater’s shooting schedule was to reconvene his cast and crew for three or four days once a year and film another scene. No subtitles proclaim the date; as in real life, we can only guess by subtle physical and emotional changes in the kids (and their hairstyles) that time has passed. Until, with a sudden shock, we realize that the cherubic-faced little Mason we remember from a couple of scenes ago has become a tall, rangy teen.
Cultural references mark the time in Linklater’s universe. Kids dress up in costume at a midnight bookstore party for the next volume of Harry Potter. Dad sends them out to post Obama/Biden campaign signs on neighborhood lawns. Gadgetry evolves from early video games and a vintage turquoise iMac to iPhones and Facebook pages, and the subtle but persistent musical soundtrack ranges from Coldplay to Gnarls Barkley to Gotye.
With only a few days to shoot per year, Boyhood must have been very carefully planned, at least in terms of story arc. It doesn’t have as much of an improv feel as Linklater’s Before Sunset and its sequels, yet it conveys the flow and flexibility of real life, mostly from the director allowing room for his actors’ personalities to shape scenes. Hawke’s scenes with the kids are priceless, whether Mason Sr. is embarrassing 15-year-old daughter Sam with condom advice (“Ewww, Dad!”), or gifting Mason with a mix tape of ex-Beatle solo cuts he calls “The Black Album.” (“I put the band back together again!”)
Arquette is also excellent as the harried but fiercely loving mom. About to send Mason off to college, she has a sudden meltdown over how fast it’s all gone by. “I thought there would be more,” she cries. Even though Boyhood clocks in at just under three hours, we know exactly how she feels, so caught up have we become in these heartfelt lives.
BOYHOOD **** (out of four) With Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. An IFC release. Rated R. 166 minutes.