Richard Linklater’s skill as a filmmaker is not so much how he can innovate within the confines of the American indie scene—be it with rotoscoping or the epic 18-year “Before” trilogy or the mix of documentary and fiction in Bernie—but that he never makes it feel like a gimmick. The same goes for Boyhood, which is being sold to its audience as “film history,” and for good reason. If you missed the story, he began shooting the film 12 years ago with a seven-year-old named Ellar Coltrane, and picked back up with him for a week or so of filming every year to tell a story of adolescence where the characters age naturally before your eyes.
It’s the kind of daring gimmick that’s right up Linklater’s alley—who knows if a seven-year-old will develop into a remotely appealing actor, but he’s always been a director who coaxes incredibly natural work out of his casts, be they amateurs or movie stars. Coltrane is at times moody and sullen, but that’s hardly unusual behavior for a pubescent teenage boy. He’s surrounded by a more energetic supporting cast—Patricia Arquette as his mother, Ethan Hawke as his dad, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as his sister—and events both soapily dramatic and believably mundane for the audience to latch on to.
Boyhood succeeds because it more often than not feels very natural and lived-in, exactly the vibe Linklater is aiming for, and all the more impressive given its two hour 45-minute runtime. This is not an aimless film when it comes to plot—there’s some drama relating to Mason’s parents, who are split up before the film begins, and more gripping stuff relating to future step-parents and the family moving around Texas. The time-jumps are loose and up to the audience to notice (there’s no title screens for each year flashing on screen), largely perceptible through changing hairstyles and the most popular music of the year, which Linklater happily deploys pretty sparingly (if his needle-drops were any less subtle, Boyhood might come off like a VH1 nostalgia special).
Though the time-jumps are loose, the film falls into three broad acts, each leaning on broad story tropes that any filmgoer might recognize. The first, dreamiest segment is Mason as a kid, playing video games, flicking through Victoria’s Secret catalogues, fighting with his sister, foolishly wishing his parents would get back together. As he hits puberty and becomes even quieter and more sullen (as young teenage boys are wont to do), Linklater leans heavier on what’s going on around him, with his mother marrying another man and that situation slowly deteriorating. Mason returns to prominence as a handsome older teen for the final section, with plenty more established story material—drinking, a girlfriend, skepticism about the society he’s being called on to fit into.
To Linklater’s immense credit, he largely skims around stuff we’ve seen plenty of times before (like first kisses or sexual encounters, friendship drama at school, and the like) and figures we’ll be able to fill in the blanks every time we hop forward a year. At the same time, he’s shooting for a pretty universal experience, from the music (we open with Coldplay’s “Yellow” and wrap up with the Arcade Fire) to the plotting, and sometimes big dramatic moments don’t feel entirely earned.
Arquette’s character probably suffers the most in this regard, since she’s the engine for a few plot devices (moving town, marrying a new man, etc.) but there isn’t the time to really explore her journey since we’re seeing her through Mason’s eyes and for most of the time she’s very much a mom. It’s extremely powerful when Mason is younger (he at one point catches a glimpse of her in tears without immediately understanding why) but as he grows up, she gets some character beats that feel more applicable to any old mom.
Ethan Hawke gets to have more fun with his dad character, ironic considering he starts off as the clichéd fun but absent dad who pulls his hot rod in front of the house and whisks the kids off to get presents every so often. He shouldn’t get to walk off with the movie’s best scenes, but of course he does, and Hawke’s chemistry with Coltrane feels the most realistic, since he’s making more of an effort to prod the kids about how they’re feeling.
At its best moments (many of them involving Hawke), Boyhood reminded me of the great Taiwanese filmmaker Edward Yang, about the highest compliment I can deliver, who made several sweeping epics that focused on family, youth and urban society, the best-known of which is his final film Yi Yi, which also leaned on some melodramatic twists in its enrapturing portrait of a middle-class family. Boyhood is not quite on that level, but it has enough moments that feel devastatingly natural to carry you past those that feel hackneyed. Calling it a sum of its parts can be a backhanded compliment, but it feels like especially worthy praise for Boyhood, considering how much went into making it feel whole.