Over the course of dozen years from 2002-2014, director Richard Linklater filmed his principal actors – including his own daughter Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, and young star Ellar Coltrane – for what was tentatively titled The Twelve Year Project, a series of short films that charted real-life changes through a fictionalized narrative.
The resulting film is called Boyhood, and it’s a coming-of-age tale like no film before it, effectively blurring the line between real-life and fiction: there’s no denying that we are truly watching these actors grow up before our eyes. The director is no stranger to experimentation – from Slacker to Waking Life to his Before Sunrise trilogy – but Boyhood is very likely his greatest achievement to date.
Coltrane plays Mason, a young boy growing up in Texas with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and their single mother Olivia (Arquette). Hawke plays the ex-husband and father of the two children, who isn’t always in the picture, even if his influence is felt throughout.
There is no traditional story here; how could there be? What we are watching – even though it is entirely scripted – seems to have been directly informed by the actor’s lives. I wonder how different the final project is to what Linklater had originally conceived; how he shaped narrative during the decade-plus making of the film based on the real-life changes in his cast.
What we’re left with is essentially a series of vignettes. While raising her children, Olivia manages to finish her studies and eventually become a professor. Still, she marries not one, but two bullish husbands, both alcoholics: the physically abusive Bill (Marco Perella), who terrorizes both Olivia’s kids and his own, and the Iraq War veteran Jim (Brad Hawkins), who can barely muster a grunt.
Hawke’s Dad, meanwhile, is living the single life in another Texas town: he’s an ex-musician who seems to still be searching for meaning in his life. Still, he’s a loving father who takes his kids bowling and out to dinner, and tries to impart wisdom to them as best he can. He clearly cares about his children, even if he’s resigned to taking a less-than-substantial role in their lives.
And there at the center of it all is Coltrane, turning before our eyes from this sweet young kid into… well, a bit of a twerp. Mom and Dad offer him the best advice they can, as does a photography professor (Tom McTigue) who pulls him aside in a darkroom and tells him to get his act together – he’ll thank him in twenty years. Still, Mason sulks and saunters through many of the climactic scenes.
After spending almost three hours with the character, this isn’t the satisfying resolution to his story that we’re looking for. But no eighteen-year-old has the world figured out by the time they get to college; Mason still has his whole life ahead of him. Boyhood is at its incisive best when telling us that life doesn’t always turn out how we want it to – and that we never stop growing up.
The perceivable real-life changes in the actors are what really sets Boyhood apart from anything else. Of course, you have to ask if the film would still be as good if scripted and filmed in a more conventional manner – had different actors portrayed the kids at different ages, and if Hawke and Arquette were aged with makeup, would the film still be as effective?
The answer, I think, is yes: Boyhood is a quiet-but-powerful experience that expresses a poignant authenticity about growing up (and, particularly, growing up in the USA). Some scenes brought back waves of memories for me, and others brought tears to my eyes; this is a film like no other, the definitive coming-of-age movie.
With a 99% on the Tomatometer and a rather incredible 100 on Metacritic, Boyhood is destined to go down as the year’s best-reviewed film (in fact, it’s one of the best-reviewed films of all-time). Expect a backlash come awards time, but there’s no denying the incredible feat that the director has accomplished here. This is a film to be seen and discussed for decades to come.