Starring Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, and Patricia Arquette. Rated PG.
The movie of the year, and perhaps of the decade, Boyhood follows one fictional family over a period of 12 years. It does that in real time and thus accomplishes what no previous feature has ever set out to do, marrying the inexorable passage of life to the peculiar insights of narrative creation.
As put forth by street photographer Garry Winogrand, who trafficked in the particulars of everyday life, “There’s nothing as mysterious as a fact clearly described.” Not that writer-director Richard Linklater, famous for films as different as Slacker and Before Sunrise, is all that interested in big mysteries. Where most tales attempting biographical sweep tend to favour melodramatic highlights, he’s more taken by the small stuff.
In this 400 Blows for our time, young Mason—newcomer Ellar Coltrane, six when filming began—is already a little numb from the separation of parents Olivia and Mason Sr., played throughout by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who now live in different parts of Texas. In fact, dad is really gone, part of the time to Alaska, while mom is preoccupied with going back to college and mediating squabbles between Mason and his older sister, played by Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter).
In small incidents, shot for just a few days each year, Mason Sr. comes back and anxiously ingratiates himself with the kids, while Olivia hooks up with a university professor who’s not quite as liberal as he seems, and later with an Iraq veteran whose PTSD gradually surfaces.
Friends and relatives come and go, the sister remains bratty for a while, and the lad has his first crushes—all the usual things—while pretty much muttering his way through school. The editing strategy, aided by frequent collaborator Sandra Adair, ensures that you never know how much time you’ll spend with each event. Sometimes, Mason will go to his room and exit it a year older. It was lucky for Linklater, then, that the chubby kid gradually turned into such a charismatic figure.
The almost three-hour film, which whizzes by in turns both heartbreaking and genuinely amusing, is an extended meditation on masculinity, with the male characters, young and old, searching for the right gestures and attitudes. Mason endures lecture after lecture, some useful and others self-serving at best. If this makes him a slightly passive character in his own drama, that’s only because children grow into true protagonists after they’ve lived long enough to act. In that sense, the film is really about boyhood’s end, and the beginning of something else.