Boyhood follows the life of Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from age six to eighteen. When his parents, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette) divorce, Mason, Jr. and his eight-year-old sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), are up-rooted from their hometown, moved across Texas, and enrolled in new schools. As their father attempts to get his life together and reunite the family, following years of aimless odd-jobs and music gigs, their single mother strives to better herself in academia – in order to provide a more stable life for her children on her own.
Over the course of the next twelve years, father, mother, daughter, and son all grow and change - molded by each other’s choices and challenging life events. Still, from grade school to graduation, Mason, Jr. forges ahead, attempting to find his way in an intimate journey through adolescence – one that is full of highs and lows (and more than one alcoholic parent) – before venturing into adulthood.
Boyhood is the creation of director Richard Linklater (Before Midnight) – who first began work on the ambitious feature back in 2002; over the twelve years that followed, the filmmaker would annually re-assemble his cast and crew – writing and shooting a new chapter in the life of Mason, Jr. over the course of a few weeks. The result is one of the most unique and memorable movie experiences ever put to film – and a must-see for any cinephile. While some filmgoers will be able to point out minor faults in the project, there’s no doubt that movie lovers who are interested in Boyhood (both its story and its production) will find that the film provides a remarkable and thought-provoking opportunity – to witness the maturation of a fictional boy, a young actor, an auteur filmmaker, and early 21st-century American culture, encapsulated in a single decade-spanning arc.
The Boyhood narrative is forgivably choppy at times – dedicating the majority of its runtime to eventful turning points in the life of Mason, Jr. and his family. Linklater attempts to get the most out of each episodic installment with a combination of bookended story beats, as well as interconnected threads – an approach that allows the filmmaker to ensure each chapter provides new thematic material, each exploring a different aspect of Mason, Jr. as he ages and evolves. In spite of its overall success, the format could be jarring at times for those expecting an all-encompassing (and steady) timeline - since certain chapters feature abrupt shifts, where side characters are dramatically altered or disappear entirely. Still, it’s difficult to argue with the final result; Linklater serves his main focus, providing Mason, Jr. with refreshed situations, a roster of captivating characters, and opportunities for development – all of which contribute to his vibrant portrayal of youth.
Ellar Coltrane portrays Mason, Jr. and, even though it’s interesting to see A-listers like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette revamp and experiment in their 12-year roles, there’s no question that watching Coltrane grow up (as a fictional character and a young acting talent) is what makes Boyhood such an engrossing film project. Viewers, regardless of age, gender, and nationality, should have no problem identifying with Mason, Jr.’s struggles – as a young person trying to balance his own interests and desires within the confines of youthful insecurities and societal institutions.
Few viewers will have walked the exact same path as Mason, Jr. but, in spite of any differences, Boyhood is a transcendent narrative experience, reflecting the triumphs, fiascos, and uncertainties of pre-adult life – made all the more powerful as Coltrane makes the transition from adorable child actor to a mature and poignant performer.
As indicated, the supporting cast is equally strong – with a gripping performance from Arquette as Olivia. From beginning to end, Olivia is charged with timely obstacles that will, without a doubt, ring true for single parents: struggling to provide for her children while also attempting to find happiness, fulfillment, and love for herself. While Mason, Jr. is the focus of Boyhood, it is Olivia’s choices that drive the film and its characters into untouched areas of exploration - often to stirring (but very real) ends. Like Arquette, Hawke takes an otherwise stock “deadbeat father” outline and, overtime, delivers an intriguing and earnest arc for the elder Mason. Alongside other male “role models,” the Mason, Sr. character is a smart juxtaposition for Mason, Jr. – especially when the film contemplates what it takes for a boy (regardless of age) to mature into a man. Just as Mason, Jr. grows up before the viewer’s eyes, Linklater charts a similar arc for his father – culminating in a number of moving father-son scenes in the final act.
Lorelei Linklater (Richard Linklater’s daughter) rounds-out the main cast – carrying Samantha from girlhood to a twenty-year old college co-ed. Unfortunately, while the filmmaker attempts to give the character a strong supporting role, Samantha receives less and less focus as Boyhood unfolds. Still, Linklater is solid in the role and, without question, provides a much-appreciated female perspective – and an intriguing (no to mention vocal) foil to Olivia. Since Samantha is cast in a supporting role, Linklater’s maturation as an actress is slightly harder to track; yet, her portrayal remains effective throughout, nonetheless.
Richard Linklater’s ambitious project comes with a few hurdles that might put-off casual moviegoers who were expecting a straightforward coming-of-age tale. However, thanks to gripping performances, relatable human drama, and an ambitious central premise, most cinephiles will marvel at the director’s noteworthy accomplishment – and relish in the unparalleled movie experience that Boyhood provides.
Boyhood runs 165 minutes and is Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use. Now playing in theaters.
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