Writer/director Richard Linklater’s latest film, “Boyhood,” is tough to discuss because, while it is most certainly worth seeing, it’s difficult to determine if my admiration for it comes from my thinking it’s a great movie or merely a fascinating storytelling experiment. Filmed over the course of 12 years using the same actors as they naturally grew older, the film follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a six year old adolescent to a college bound adult and it’s easy to relate to. To a certain extent, all who have lived through those years and experienced the highs and lows of growing up will see themselves in young Mason or his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). If other published reviews are any indication, it’s this strange feeling of seeing our lives (or at least a decent representation of them) onscreen that is garnering the film its acclaim. But step back and look at it from a filmmaking and narrative point of view, stripped from its unique 12 year shoot, and you start to see some rough edges.
These come in the way of a story that is fairly traditional, regardless of the unique way it was captured. There isn’t much here we haven’t seen before—a broken home, an unsure future, a young boy coming of age—though it isn’t these aspects themselves that don’t work. On the contrary, they work very well. Growing up is scary, especially if your childhood is surrounded by an unstable family, and making that transition to adulthood is one of uncertainty: of where we’re going, what we’ll do, who we’ll meet, who we’ll become or if we’ll find success in our endeavors. Perhaps more succinctly, will we be happy? It’s impossible to know and “Boyhood” captures this uneasiness perfectly.
Where it stumbles is in its redundancy and inability to explore key aspects of a young person’s life that is integral to who they eventually become. The latter issue can largely be excused. Even with a runtime of nearly three hours, it’s impossible to fit every life changing event in, though certain important topics are picked up and dropped so nonchalantly that they feel forced, almost as if Linklater felt compelled to include them, but had no idea what to do with them. The best example comes with its all-too-brief discussion on religion. A child’s spiritual journey, from believing what they’re told to figuring things out for themselves, is a big thing. Whether someone ultimately decides to keep their faith or abandon it (or discover it in this case, since Mason’s parents seem to have never introduced him to it) is a long and tough process that is glossed over inconsequentially here.
However, this is not the film’s focus, so it’s a minor issue. Less forgivable is its rush through certain periods of their lives, like when they discover their first stepfather’s completely out-of-left-field alcoholism, and its repeat of previous events; their second stepfather too proves himself to be an abusive alcoholic, though not a violent one like the first. There may be those out there who can relate to this (rare though they may be), but it leads to narrative staleness. The fear you’ll feel from their first encounter will likely be replaced by a weary shrug when it happens again. It seems like there was a narrative need to have their mother divorce this man to get the family back on their own, but why resort to the same approach as before? A simple explanation that the two had simply fallen out of love would have sufficed and is just as believable.
Nevertheless, this is a very good movie, the aforementioned flaws a minor part of its overall impressive (and lengthy) construction. In fact, it’s the little things that give the movie its poignancy: when Mason develops his first crush, experiences his first heartbreak and has to quickly decide how to respond to peer pressure. The latter scene will speak to everyone watching, regardless of their own personal choice, as they watch Mason give in and start drinking while a friend refuses and suffers the harsh, emasculating name calling, as if chugging a beer would somehow make him a man.
Other moments come and go, some happy, some sad and some so funny and tender they’ll likely arouse an unexpected laugh and smile out of you, particularly the sex talk Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, has with his sister, but the most impressive aspect of “Boyhood” is how it captures the time period, each year feeling like a brief snapshot in an era since passed. The characters play original Xbox systems, the soundtrack consists of music from the year represented, like a track off Blink-182’s 2001 album, “Take Off Your Pants and Jacket,” and the characters read the Harry Potter books, even dressing up as the characters later on during a book release event after the series has become a full blown phenomenon. It even pokes fun of these time periods, most notable in a 2008 section focusing on the election between Barack Obama and John McCain. At the time of filming, Linklater cleverly realized the extremes of the two sides as he portrays a Republican man smugly commenting that Obama’s middle name is Hussein and an overenthusiastic Democrat who supports Obama, but seems to have no idea why.
“Boyhood” captures not just the triumphs and tribulations of growing up, but also serves as a spot-on reminder of how our world has evolved (or devolved, depending on your point of view) over the last 12 years. It’s a little rough around the edges with a handful of blurry shots and some occasionally rigid performances (that get better as the kids get older) and its narrative can be a bit clunky, but it is nevertheless an accurate and engrossing representation of growing up. Individual moments never last for long and before you know it, those little kids have become full grown adults, a realization indicative of many of our own lives.
Ultimately, that’s the point of “Boyhood.” It realizes that life isn’t always easy or pleasant, but it goes by quick and the amalgamation of these moments make it worth living. As one character astutely points out late in the film, life isn’t necessarily about seizing the moment, as the old adage goes; after all, you can’t always control the situations life throws at you. Perhaps more appropriately, she says, it’s about letting the moment seize you.
Boyhood receives 4/5