Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood (IFC Films)

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood (IFC Films)

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater
Produced by Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland, Jonathan Sehring and John Sloss
Released by IFC Films
USA. 165 min. Rated R
With Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Marco Perella, Jamie Howard and Andrew Villarreal

yellowstar Richard Linklater is one of a handful of American filmmakers who is completely fearless, doing things his own way every time out (even on a big-studio movie like School of Rock). His latest, Boyhood, is no less of an experiment than his first film 23 years ago, Slacker, which tracked a series of oddballs, outsiders, and Gen-X-ers during one day and night in Austin. It followed each person one scene at a time, one sequence leading into the next one. For Linklater, his new film is also as much of an experiment in time as it is about exploring a family’s behavior a day, a week, a month, or a year at a time.

Going in, the hype has been that the film was shot over 12 years—lead actor Ellar Coltrane was seven years old when it began and 18 when finished. No filmmaker has gone to such an extent to document a life in such exacting terms in a feature film (albeit other directors, like Michael Apted with the “Up” series, Truffaut with Antoine Doinel, and even Linklater with his masterful “Before” trilogy follow up on fictional characters, or real people, every few years in a new film).

But Boyhood, which tracks the life of Mason (Coltrane, a non-professional actor, by the way), his sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, also a non-pro), and his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke), unfolds much like a novel, and I often times forgot about the 12-year shoot—Linklater has made the ultimate “slice-of-life” narrative.

The majority of the movie is concerned with the simple things a child goes through either alone, with friends, sometimes at school, sometimes just playing a video game or interacting with pop culture, or with his divorced parents. These moments are all important to this director’s method: whether going on a camping trip, to a baseball game, or having a conversation pondering if there will ever be another Star Wars movie, which had the audience laughing (as they say, hindsight is 20/20).

What is interesting about Linklater’s choice of actors is that he draws out natural performances out of all his players, even (or maybe especially) the ones we haven’t seen before. At one point, Mason is hanging out with some of his high school friends, and the talk is about drinking beer, which girl they might or might not hook up with,  and Coltrane’s presence is actually quite calm, attentive. Some of the best acting is listening, and Coltrane is great at that. You almost wonder how much directing Linklater did with him, or his daughter, if at all.

There’s so much of the mundane and every day in Boyhood that when real drama hits, the impact is stronger. Arquette’s character falls for her college professor, an older man with kids, and they marry, and it turns out he’s a mean and abusive drunk (not to the point of an afterschool special, but enough to make these scenes feel rich and awkward in their tension). In fact, this storyline’s so strong that I almost wondered at first if it was too strong when compared to the rest of the tone, which is tremendously pleasant.

Mason has the luck of having two loving parents in the Arquette and (when he’s around) Hawke characters, and they play their parts convincingly, even as Arquette has to be more of the emotional anchor and probably has the toughest role to pull off as the single parent trying to do her best for her kids—they move around a few times over these years. She sometimes has to be tough, but always fair. By the end, when tears are shed, it’s earned.

If a man is, to get all Jean Paul Sartre on you for a second, the sum of his life’s experiences, Boyhood, at 165 minutes is then an intimate, existential and emotional undertaking, revealing and touching for how it charts life’s little moments. Mason keeps learning and growing, and the place and time are important as well. (It IS Texas after all, so a Bible and a shotgun as gifts for a 16th birthday from in-laws seems just about right.) It’s no surprise that in some of the latter scenes, some of Mason’s speech sounds like his father’s when he was a younger man. Whether this was by chance or by design, Linklater gets the subtle things right as well as the bigger theme of the passage of time.

I can certainly nitpick parts of the movie, and if I were to see it again, I’d know a few scenes here and there would start to drag, or that the last two scenes maybe aren’t necessary (and the last line is, frankly, heavy-handed). But with so much empathy and humanity in one movie, I was wrapped up in caring about these people and wanting to see where how they change so that other considerations didn’t matter so much. The tagline for this movie, cheesy as it sounds, could be: “This is your life, live it a day at a time, and maybe just try to do something with it.”