Written and directed by Richard Linklater, Boyhood looks into the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 5 to 18. Born to divorced parents played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, Mason's upbringing sees him moving to several places with different stepfathers, as he attempts to understand and cope with the challenging and at times cruel world around him.
Boyhood is a curious film both in that it is unique and yet familiar. Shot in the expand of 12 years with the same actors, I believe this is the first time a film has shown characters actually aging on screen. It is astounding to see Ellar Coltrane go from a little kid to a young adult. Even better is the subtle way in which the transitions from age to age happen. Richard Linklater is known as a director who prefers to keep things grounded instead of showing off. In others hands, the film would have made it a point to mark those moments where Ellar Coltrane ages. Instead the transitions happen organically to such an extent that sometimes the change does not register immediately. I think that is brilliant way to communicate the passing of time. It puts the spotlight on the story and characters, and pushes the film from feeling like a gimmick.
Story-wise Boyhood is mundane. Normally in film this is seen as a flaw or something that is not desired, but for a film like this the mundane is what elevates the proceedings, it is was makes Boyhood all the more affecting. The focus on simple ordinary things like underage kids sneaking out to drink, talking to a girl about a party or even celebrating a birthday, all those moments carry weight and significance. Sometimes we believe that because something is ordinary that it doesn't hold any value, that just because this happens to everyone that it somehow less worthy. But Boyhood demonstrates that every moment is important whether it is dramatic or totally normal. There is a richness in seeing normality in film, first because it is rare and secondly because it allows for self-examination. I find it astounding to see how most of us literally go through the same things and yet we're affected by them differently.
One of the recurring themes in the film is Mason's dissatisfaction with the way things are. Throughout the course of the film we see the different interactions he has with different people, and how those interactions gradually shape his perspective on the world. Mason is an introspective person who is frustrated by how people keep making the same mistakes, how people overly complicate their lives and how some seem satisfied to just go with the flow. While these are not new ideas or issues, the film wants us to think about them because they are significant. It is good to see a character question his surroundings and try to discern why things are the way they are. Fortunately, none of this is ever presented in a preachy way. Instead, because we've seen Mason grow up we see his questioning of the world as a natural progression of his upbringing. It also helps that Ellar Coltrane gives an incredible performance.
Ellar Coltrane is a great actor and it is really impressive to see how progressively better he gets. His performance shifts, of course, depending on his age. Because Mason is a generally quiet character, especially in the beginning where he didn't have too many lines, a lot of the effectiveness of the performance comes as a result of how subtle he is at expressing himself. His face is very revealing, you can tell that there is always something happening in his mind. Seeing that level of subtlety at such a young age is astonishing. Once he is in his teenage years, there are more scenes where Mason speaks and we get a better sense of who he is. Ellar Coltrane excels in those later scenes, bringing a level of maturity and wisdom that is both interesting and moving. He gives a rich performance that you want revisit again so you can catch and understand all the nuances.
Elsewhere we have the parents: Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. They both give great performances, more so Arquette since her character is the one who is visibly struggling for most of the film. I liked that Boyhood made it a point to also examine the day to day life of a single mother. She was going to school while raising her kids and didn't have the best luck on the romance department. It was difficult, and Patricia Arquette creates such poignant character that at times your heart just breaks. It is one this supporting performances that add layers to the film and help assemble a much more powerful experience. Ethan Hawke is the estranged father who wants to be a part of their kids life. It is a performance that starts off very familiar and uneventful, but as things progress Hawke adds different ideas and sentiments to it that help create a fuller picture.
Boyhood is one of the most interesting and affecting films I've seen all year. Richard Linklater has assembled a truly special film. It explores a familiar subject matter in a way we have never seen before. While the fact that it was shot in 12 years will garner much attention, Boyhood does a great job in placing the passing of time as a background. Just like in real life the passing of time is a natural mostly unnoticeable thing, it is the same in Boyhood. To be honest, it is thanks to that stylistic choice that once we're celebrating Mason's high school graduation, you are overwhelmed emotionally. It is one those things where sometimes you look back and see how much things have changed throughout the years, and you feel this tinge of melancholia. Time is fleeting and it is really amazing how the film creates that same effect within less than 3 hours. Boyhood is moving portrait of growing up and it is one that we should all watch.