In a year with few truly memorable films thus far (Pawel Pawlikowski’s Ida being one of the memorable ones and Oscar season still to come), the predictable summer gave us a bit of fresh air with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. Shot over a period of twelve years with the same actors, including frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke, Boyhood allows us to witness the passage of time, focusing on Mason, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane, Fast Food Nation) who grows from 6 to 18 during the course of the film. Though by no means a documentary, framed as it is by a story in which Mason and his sister Samanatha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter) spend generally carefree weekends with their father (an outstanding Hawke) and home life with often-frustrated mother Patricia Arquette after the parents divorce, the film does allow us to see the actors age, creating a (mostly fascinating) opportunity to observe the fleeting nature of time and the “now.”
Part of what makes Boyhood work so well is the equal focus on small moments (bowling, camping, playing in a park) and milestones (first day at a new school, high school graduation, leaving home for college). In fact, it’s the little moments that are most convincing, moments that are casual on the surface yet mine frank emotion, such as the “talk about sex” that Dad gives Samantha over French fries in a public eatery, Lorelei Linklater truly shining as an embarrassed teen not wanting to hear about condoms from her father. Her nearly horrified laughter is not only infectious, it feels real and all the more infectious because of how real it feels. It hardly seems like acting.
The big moments, unfortunately, don’t fare quite as well, occasionally feeling forced such as when Arquette’s mother breaks down as Mason, Jr. packs to leave for college. Arquette seems distant throughout the film and her sobbing in this farewell scene is not entirely convincing. Perhaps it’s the just the struggle for art to replicate life showing its strain but throughout the film a certain level of empathy that should be present feels elusive. Part of the problem is that except for Mason, Samantha and Mason, Jr., most of the characters come across as people you wouldn’t really want to spend a whole lot of time with. And near the two-thirds mark, a certain fatigue and tediousness starts to threaten, just like in real life when we find ourselves spending too much time with a relative or friend who we love, certainly, but who have the distinct ability to drive us up a wall. Truly, familiarity can breed contempt, in life and in the movies, and one of the points one may take away from Boyhood is we are none of us perfect nor always a pleasure to be around, but you only have one family. The problem is, at a running time of 165 minutes, the film, like those friends and relatives, can tax our patience.
Yet it all pays off beautifully as the film ends on a wonderfully understated moment with Mason, Jr. in the rocky outdoors, away from home at college and stoned, tentatively connecting with a sweet girl he’s just met. The tone is of uncertainty mixed with hopefulness, a tone that informs the entire movie and, for many of us, our daily lives. Boyhood taps into that, that sadness and happiness, that regret and hopefulness, and reflects it back to us. Through it all, we get the evolving picture of Mason, Jr, a budding artist; through the early teenage years when he seems a bit more thoughtful than everyone around him to the pimpled high school days of purple fingernail polish (applied by his then-girlfriend/eventual first heartbreak) and, then, the beginning of the journey of finding himself.
To whatever degree one can relate to the various characters, be it the divorced father, the single working mother, the children of divorce, Linklater has created a unique film that will lead thoughtful viewers to muse on the relationships in their own lives, the passage of time, and, ultimately, mortality – their own and that of those close to them. This is a film that should resonate for many people with moments in their own lives, working, as great films can, like a poem. A poem we once loved but haven’t read or spoken or thought about for years and that now lies buried in our consciousness. One of the few gifts of merciless time is that we can return to that poem, if we choose, and the feelings it once evoked, and for one brief moment all the years may drift away like fallen leaves. That a film that works on such a level was released in the middle of summer is a gift, one that should be relished in the theater while it still can. At home, on TV, with the cell phone nearby and thoughts of ice cream in the freezer waiting to be consumed, Boyhood will feel a lot more like television than poetry. Good television, certainly, but not poetry.