Directed by Richard Linklater
Boyhood from 5 to 17
Young Mason lay in the grass outside his elementary school. He has figured out how wasps come to exist, and tells his mom about it. That Richard Linklater casts a young boy, Ellar Coltrane, as Mason Jr., to age over twelve years of real time, with only the grace of edits to collapse the gaps, is a major feat. Other principal actors in supporting roles age in real time with him, namely his sister Samantha, played with great sass by Lorelei Linklater, and their separated parents, Mason Sr. and Olivia, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. Film is time, working in favor of the story of this boy’s life growing up in Texas, negotiating shifting family structures, which include two drunken stepfathers, and one Christian stepmother, who has a child with Mason Sr. Only something that engages time in reverse such as The Case of Benjamin Button, or forward, in the documentary 35 Up has been so revelatory. There has never been any fictional work about the passing of linear time in a boy’s life as sincere as this, and one can sense that Linklater is weaving in his own life, another great act of direction in this new American classic.
The tone of the film is neither soft nor hard, and is balanced by a great soundtrack. Linklater is exquisite for keeping things in perspective, and not going to extremes. Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly’s cinematography holds the characters in frame with their emotional condition, ranging between gravitas and humor. The humor is mostly infused by Mason’s father, (Hawke), who isn’t going to “be that guy” who sees his kids every other week in a detached relationship of minimal mumbles. Some of the best moments come between Mason Sr. and his son, like at the campout where they talk about anything from Star Wars to Mason’s first girlfriend. Humor does not work, however, with Mason’s drunken stepdads, and his mom Olivia (Arquette), who suffers them, then settles into living alone, only to realize, bereft, that she’s in an empty nest. One of several knockout scenes comes when Mason is confronted by his high school photography teacher in an unforgettable dark room chat that demands Mason to decide whether he’ll be an artistic rebel with or without a work ethic. It’s a scene to make anyone shudder to think. It is this constant play between the control of others, and Mason’s own individuation that is so fascinating to watch. Mason’s father, a musician and insurance man, is perhaps the most able to coax him into being a sensitive, yet responsible young man, even though he himself didn’t quite actualize it. Olivia, Mason’s mom, draws lines as necessary, as when she asks her daughter to curb her “horseshit attitude,” goes back to school to get her degree, or when she leaves the abusive men. Mason Sr. triumphs when he stops the car to have a real conversation with his kids, when he stages an awkward birth control talk, when he urges Mason to get his college app in early, when he talks him through his disappointment over a high school break-up. It would have been great to have more of Lorelei Linklater as the sister, given even further depth in relationship to her brother Mason. Her feisty qualities are allowed to bow out a bit in the final third. Hawke is loveable as Mason, Sr. with his own blindspots, such as missing the fact he promised his car to Mason on his 16th birthday, instead of a ride in a mini-van with his father’s new wife and baby. Mason’s inquiries to his father range from young Mason’s “Does magic exist? Are there elves in the world at the moment”? to high school graduate Mason: “what’s it all for?” Mason Sr. is genuine enough with his son not try to answer that question, but memorably says to his son: “the great thing is that you can feel so much; as you get older you get a thicker skin.”
Linklater-isms are plentiful, though couched in service of Mason’s trajectory, instead of spread widely in his ensemble films. Mainly these come out of Mason Sr. and Mason Jr. as they pontificate, often while driving. You do get the high school party scene, that gives the same big hit of sweet emotion nostalgia as in “Dazed and Confused,” faces around the keg, red plastic cups and beer games, as a random band plays. In “Boyhood,” Linklater adds no extra subplots to the party scene; it’s all centered around Mason, where he has his first conversation with soon to be girlfriend Sheena. Linklater does give spots in the limelight to his extras, and this can stand a little too much beyond Mason’s sightline, usually to give a little more credence to the supporting cast.
Mason is on his journey, and the pay off for him comes with Mason’s new college roommate, and friends. The brownie is set to kick in right as they enter a vast landscape, their chosen orientation. Mason clicks with these friends, including a new potential love interest. He follows his father’s advice from a camping trip, to ask a girl questions and act genuinely interested. They watch their friends howl into the air, celebrating their moment, Mason and his new friend quietly celebrate their own. Boyhood is a tender tour de force that captures real moments in the complexity of time, and renders them universal. Linklater is true to Mason’s heart, and lets him listen up to life.