There’s not a great theme, a great performance or even a great scene in “Boyhood.” But I think it might be a great picture.
It’s certainly unique. Writer-director Richard Linklater shot it over 12 years, convening the same cast for a few days each time, to chart the progress of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from 6 through 18. Over two and three-quarter hours, the small and mostly uneventful incidents of his life add up to one of the most rounded and honest depictions of a young person in movie history. As Linklater rightly said in an interview, “Time is actually the lead character in the film.”
It’s called “Boyhood” rather than “Childhood,” because these experiences are specific to a boy: the disappointment felt at the comings and goings of a wayward father, the loving relationship tested every time his mother shows bad judgment in men, the perpetual irritation provided by a slightly older sister (who, wondrously, turns into a friend).
Though the actors speak scripted lines, the movie feels like a documentary. The closest thing to it is a documentary, or a series of them: Michael Apted’s “Up” movies, which have dropped in on the lives of the same British citizens from 1964 (“Seven Up!”) to 2012 (“56 Up”). Francois Truffaut chronicled his Antoine Doinel character in six movies over 20 years, starting with “The 400 Blows.” But those series jump forward in time, while Linklater’s story moves in an unhurried continuum.
We scratch our heads over perpetually juvenile Mason Sr. (Linklater muse Ethan Hawke), whose love for his son rarely leads to comprehension or commitment. We feel sympathetic toward Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who rebounds from Mason Sr. to his exact opposite – a professor obsessed with rules and order – and then to a former soldier who never seems comfortable in civilian life. Even those of us who had no sisters can laugh at mercurial Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) as she morphs from pest to pal.
But we know young Mason. We share his tamped-down frustrations, his small triumphs, his perplexity and inquisitiveness and anxiety. (This feeling of kinship may be gender-based: Most movie critics in America are male, and I wonder whether women will connect with him in the same way.)
Except for a briefly abusive stepdad, who hits Olivia but does nothing to Mason Jr. except yell at him, the boy has an ordinary if often disrupted life. He gets the facts of life from ignorant, boastful friends; he experiments with pot and alcohol, without lasting ill effects; he moves from place to place, as his mom leaves partners or runs out of money. (She goes to night school and becomes a college teacher, so the family reaches an even financial keel.) Linklater doesn’t mock any characters: When Mason’s step-grandparents give him a Bible and a shotgun on his 15th birthday, the director is simply noting Texas rites of passage.
Linklater doesn’t identify years as they go by, except via songs on the soundtrack or current events. We don’t always know Mason’s age as he moves from elementary school through high school. Individual episodes seem timeless: a funked talk about contraception with his dad (in a bowling alley!), awkward conversations with teachers who admire his talent but think he’s slacking in class, a photography competition where he ducks praise after winning a silver medal.
Because we know Mason Jr. so well, we’re invested in him from the start. Coltrane has a shy charisma as he literally grows into the part; it’s as if he learned to act by acting, getting ever more comfortable in Mason’s shoes. He’s in every scene (or able to see or hear what’s going on), and we feel like parents sending a kid to college when he finally leaves home for the University of Texas.
Linklater’s not making an autobiography, but the nonconformist director must have sympathized with a character who barely cares about school, yet develops a talent for a visual art. Mason deletes his Facebook page, saying, “I want to try not to live my life through a screen. I want some real interaction.” This movie, the only one of its kind as far as I know, offers exactly that.