Richard Linklater has had a long, often prestigious, occasionally flawed career, but he’s generally at his best when he’s dealing with simple humanity, closely examining people as they grow and mature, as they live and love and lose each other and themselves. Of his impressive resume, his most ambitious work is generally unanimously acknowledged to be the stunning Before trilogy, three films that are filmed over the course of 18 years, examining two complicated and richly drawn characters.
Boyhood, Linklater’s newest film takes that brand of year-spanning ambition to an entirely new level. Focusing on the life of a single young boy, it was filmed in bits and pieces over the course of 12 years, using the exact same actors, shifting and changing course and direction as the main character’s life did the same. As a result, it’s an amazing, sumptuous, emotional journey where you feel like you are at the side of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) for a full twelve years of his life, watching him grow and learn, joining him as he makes good choices and bad, as he lives and loves and simply goes through his life.
Mason’s life is guided — mostly — by his divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) who has custody of him and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), while also influenced deeply by the occasional appearance of his father Mason Sr., an itinerant dreamer played by Ethan Hawke. The plot of the film is sublime in its simplicity — it’s nothing less or more than the story of Mason Jr.’s life, from age six to when he graduates high school, and how his life and the lives around him change over those twelve years. Arquette’s performance as Olivia is terrific, portraying a woman who tirelessly devotes her life to her children, while at the same time making a series of poor decisions about the men in her life, even as she slowly begins to better herself through education and career, beyond the scope of her role as the family’s matriarch. Simultaneously, Hawke’s Mason Jr. struggles to find his footing in the world — he’s a charismatic slacker musician who’s quite talented, but not quite talented enough, and often his best intentions tend to backfire on him.
What’s most remarkable, however, is the duality and evolution presented by the two children. There’s something amazing going on as you watch the film, because it’s not just about watching the two of them growing up, though that story is riveting in and of itself. There’s also a sense that Linklater is pulling back the curtain so that you may see the actors themselves grow, so you can witness their skills improve and their talents develop. It’s a wholly unique way of watching the craft on screen, literally watching an actor grow up and evolve, and it’s an absolutely fascinating opportunity unlike any other.
As for the story itself, its simplicity allows for the characters to take center stage, and it becomes a joy to watch. Their rises and falls, their stumbles and leaps, each are fully explored and richly depicted, and you quickly become totally invested in the whole family. It’s a beautiful film, aided by some gorgeous cinematography capturing all the of beauty and allure of its Texas locations. It’s dusky hues and sun-drenched locales contrast well with its set pieces, which range from worn out housing to well-to-do suburbia. It’s all so perfectly crafted, so seamlessly assembled, that it becomes one of the few times where you genuinely feel like you’re watching the real thing, like you’re watching an actual family onscreen.
Twelve years of performing together will do that, I suppose, but it’s also due to some terrific writing, with dialogue that feels organic and honest, never forced or dragged down by narrative artifice. It’s all just so raw and real that at times it’s almost painful to endure. Two pieces will always stand out — Patricia Arquette’s stunning performance when she finally breaks free of her horrifically abusive second husband, and Coltrane’s heart-stopping showing as a teenager experiencing his first real love and heartbreak. Everything leading up to those moments were so artfully created, and then the summation of each set of events was sublime in how they resolve themselves. Nothing is easy or straightforward, and there’s often a bittersweet note of heartbreak with each redemption, and all of it is wonderful to watch.
For a story as simple as this, let’s simplify this review: Boyhood is the best film I’ve seen this year. It may well be the best film I’ve seen in several years. Initially, I wondered if it affected me so strongly because of my newfound fatherhood, but it’s so much more than that. It’s a lovely film, so much so that even its flaws — mostly due to the inexperience of the young actors in their early years — are perfectly woven into the tapestry of the film itself. It makes them less like flaws and more like slight imperfections in the fabric, human touches that allow the audience to reflect on all of the work and effort and love that became a part of a truly wonderful film.