The coming-of-age film is a tried and true formula. We follow a child, usually a boy, as he grows from wide-eyed innocence, through his formative years, until he becomes, at least in the eyes of the storyteller, a man. Boyhood completely follows that formula, as we meet six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a cute, daydreaming kid who lives with his single mom (Patricia Arquette) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) in Texas. Mason does kid things–you know, plays with the neighborhood kids, graffitis a wall, stares at the sky. As Mason grows older, his life changes from year to year. His mom gets a new husband (Marco Perella), and the kids get new step-siblings. Later, the husband turns out to be a douchebag drunk, so Mason’s mom uproots the kids to start their lives over again. In the meantime, the kids get on-and-off visits from their slacker dad (Ethan Hawke), who is sometimes in the picture, but admittedly, a lot of the times he’s not. Mason grows from a daydreaming kid, to a philosophizing teen. He falls in love. He falls out of love. He tries to decide what to do with his life. Finally, he graduates, and he enters the next big step of his life: Adulthood.
See, that plot in itself is not very exceptional. If that were it, it would just be a solid, if kind of forgettable six-slice movie. But Boyhood is different: the film was actually shot with the same actors over 12 years. These are not different actors playing different stages of one character’s life. It is all the same kid, the same friends, the same adults. Is it a gimmick? Sure. But the closest cinematic feat we’ve seen to this gimmick is maybe Michael Apted documentary series 7 Up, where he has revisited and interviewed the same people over 50+ years, or director Richard Linklater’s own Before… trilogy. As Mason grows up, we are watching Ellar Coltrane grow up. He has said in interviews that as each year goes by in the film (which is done without concrete transitions… he is just older suddenly), the hairstyle is all him, and sometimes even the clothes. Part of the fascination is wondering if the boy shaped the character at all, and how much of it was real (apparently it was all painstakingly scripted by Linklater). Did Mason like photography because Coltrane did in real life? Was he fully warned that he was going to get his hair cut off in a scene when he was 10-ish (the kid looks PISSED)? Were the child actors as eager to partake when they were teens as when they were kids? Did they even have any idea what they agreed to?
Boyhood is also quite moving in that the adults are not given the short shrift in the story of this one kid’s life. As a viewer who long ago left (child)hood behind, I found myself sympathizing with Mason’s mother’s journey. By the end of the film, we’ve seen her life path from a single, harried young mother, to a single (again) professional woman who faces an empty nest panic as her kids get to start the part of their lives that flew past in her own. Patricia Arquette shines in this role, and it is fascinating to see her develop as an actor while seeing the woman herself mature before our eyes. There is no need for age makeup, nostalgic flashbacks or retro props and soundtrack songs in Boyhood. It is all contemporary to when it was filmed, making the whole experience feel like eavesdropping into another family’s home movies. Boyhood is a fascinating, fascinating film experiment. Don’t see it alone, because like Mason waxing poetic on the meaning of life, you will be faced with the need to philosophize about the film’s true meaning afterwards.