"Boyhood" is a cinematic gift, a compassionate and sometimes amusing drama about growing up that extracts truths out of what appear to be life's most random moments.
Richard Linklater's revolutionary epic -- filmed in real time -- allows audiences to become like long-distance relatives who drop in every so often to see how Mason Jr. (newcomer Ellar Coltrane in a tone-perfect performance) is doing. Over the years, we get to know this soft-spoken kid from Texas as he transforms from a wide-eyed 6-year-old to a questioning, cynical 18-year-old. We also become fully enmeshed in the hopes, dreams and problems of his estranged parents, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette), along with his more demonstrative and trouble-prone sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter).
The family basically becomes our own, reminding us of similar experiences, feelings and circumstances from our own pasts.
Understandably, much has been made about how Linklater took the bold, some might say crazy, step to film "Boyhood" using the same cast over a 12-year span. That Linklater received a green light for such a project is amazing; that this risk-taking venture works so well demonstrates why he is one of our most treasured filmmakers.
What Linklater has pulled off could be categorized as a revolutionary cinematic experiment. But it's the seamless result that elevates its status to a landmark achievement, one that gracefully deploys its technique without ever feeling contrived. There are no title sequences that pop up to decree "four years later," no obvious conversations in which some secondary character strategically blurts out, "My, how big you've gotten." It all unfolds so naturally none is needed. "Boyhood" is plotless, yet full of purpose, capturing the experience of growing up with honesty and humor. In short, it's one of the best, most observant movies ever made about an American family.
At the start, "Boyhood" appears to be little more than an engaging series of mundane events strung together. It opens with 6-year-old Mason gazing up in the sky (remember that image), then relates ordinary events that range from squabbling with sister Samantha (Linklater) as she sings a horrendous version of Britney Spears' "Oops! ... I Did It Again" to Mason playing video games and looking at images of underwear models in catalogs. But as Mason grows up and moves from home to home with his mom and sister, so does the movie.
If you're looking for sentimentalized resolutions, idealized relationships and romanticized musings about losing one's innocence, you'll be disappointed. Linklater's film is subtle as it acknowledges the importance of those in-between parts of living, like a camping trip with dad or attending a college course with mom, that make up a life. Linklater reminds us of the importance of embracing all those experiences, even during those uneventful stretches that might not seem to hold much resonance.
The elliptical road "Boyhood" travels might sound like the one Terrence Malick's more esoteric "Tree of Life" took us down. In a way, some of the same turf is covered, but don't let that scare you off. "Boyhood" never resorts to ill-conceived, sweeping gestures that leave you scratching your head. No dinosaurs appear, and there's ample dialogue that binds everything together.
As in all of Linklater's films, from "Dazed and Confused" to the Hawke-Julie Delpy relationship trilogy that began with the luminous "Before Sunrise," there's a documentary-like authenticity that heightens every scene, from heated, sometimes explosive exchanges between family members to surprise conversations that at first seem simply incidental but later carry greater weight.
To make a gamble like this work, you need a cast that doesn't overact, a dedicated crew and the ability to create a look and feel that conveys a time and place. Music plays an essential role, and we're transported over time by a diverse and time-targeted soundtrack that sprinkles in songs from Coldplay to Arcade Fire.
As for the cast, Linklater always draws out Hawke's personal best, and the actor's endearing performance as a wandering dad who stumps for Obama and is surprised to find himself driving a minivan, fits him well. Arquette reveals just how underrated she's been as she nails her role as the often exasperated, overworked single mom with dreams of becoming a professor and bad judgment when it comes to men. Coltrane is an unfussy actor and never overplays his mumbly teen, while Lorelei Linklater evolves naturally from being just a kid to a young woman.
To show the advance of time, the characters' wardrobes and styles change, but not in outlandish ways. Hawke's hair gets jelled back. Arquette wears more professional-looking clothes. Lorelei Linklater's hair changes color. Coltrane's nails have polish on them.
It all adds context, delivering yet another existential point that "Boyhood" shares with us: that we are all, no matter our age, still in the process of growing up and sorting out our place in the world. And, given that, we might as well fully embrace the fact there is no reliable road map to show us the way.
* * * *
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater
Director and writer: Richard Linklater
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Opens: In very limited release July 18, wider on July 25