Ever since Boyhood was announced in 2002, it’s been heavily buzzed. Boyhood, which chronicles the formative years of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the ages of 6 to 18, was shot in increments of 2 week summers from 2002 to 2014, using the same actors in each role. Writer and director Richard Linklater crafts this nearly three hour film into something far beyond a “for the hell of it” vanity project.
Linklater’s intimate script and loving direction cannily captures the humor of the quotidian and repetitiveness of everyday lives of a basically average American family in the new millennium. With a cast of largely unknown actors, there is a real sense of credibility to a heightened home video effect, with very naturalistic dialogue full of awkward pauses, vague non-descript moments, and lots of inarticulacies and repetition.
Ellar Coltrane gives life to an introspective character who is withdrawn as a defense mechanism from the family dysfunction and moving around. He spends a great deal of time observing people and the world around him, hence his passion for photography. Ultimately his broodiness takes over, making him harder to reach and impacting his relationships.
In this coming-of-age story, not only the children have growing pains. The parents are just as confused and unsure about themselves. Usually, in young adult movies, the parents are very flat characters who either are holier than thou and incessantly stable or hopeless fuck ups. Here, the confusion is both endearing as it humanizes them but also bittersweet as it doesn’t have the “everything will be ok” comfort that most of these films artificially give.
Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette give highly layered performances as divorced parents searching for themselves, but committed to their children’s lives. Mom is Mason’s and Samantha (Lorelai Linklater), stable parent who completes school to improve the families’ finances, but her insecurities often impart negative, and sometimes dire consequences on her children’s secondary relationships. Dad is a fun loving playmate who comes in and out. Though his appearances are brief, he engages with his kids in deep conversations, treating them as equals and patiently supporting them in their crises.
Dad ultimately “sells out” in Mason’s eyes by marrying into a very Christian family and trading his fun vintage car for a station wagon. This causes some tension between him and Mason, who had a stronger connection to the car than Dad realized. Dad remains unreliable, by making promises he is unable to keep, as they grow older.
Many reviewers criticized the multiple abusive boyfriends/husbands arc but I felt it lent gritty realism to the script and greatly contributed to the complexity of Patricia Arquette’s character. This repetitiveness is rarely seen in films because conventional wisdom says it’s anti-climactic. In this case, it shows a hard truth that even people as intelligent as the mother can have a serious blind spot.
The best segment overall is Mom’s marriage with Professor Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella). Perella, who has hitherto played bit parts, is a scene stealer as a cultured, charismatic man whose alcoholism progressively spirals out of control. Initially, he comes across as a typical suburban WASP male, patronizing and dull. It is quickly revealed that he is anything but dull. His cruel nature is initially revealed psychologically through his obsessive need for rules and order to the point of Stepford Wives territory. The point of no return is the lunch scene when Bill, already shitfaced, angrily berates the entire family, throwing dishes at them, manifesting his own self-loathing.
The film has an uncommonly the first act. The audience immediately understands the family dynamic, the dialogue was at its most naturalistic and the two kids played off each other with real ease as spirited in their incessant quarrels. There is a balance in the humor of these scenes and the growing drama with mom and a dysfunctional boyfriend/husband.
There are moments where the film falls under its conceit. Mom’s pep talk to a Hispanic plumber and its conclusion feels too neat and movieish, being more in place in a sappy inspirational movie like The Blind Side. The detractors are more vivid, because they stick out like sore thumbs in an otherwise seamless narrative stream.
The Thanksgiving scene was stale as the characters’ dialogue felt more like talking points than actual characterizations. The conversation about Iraq’s ill-planned military strategy was supposed to make the vet and Mom’s future third husband interesting, but instead felt more like the director’s personal manifesto. Mason didn’t need a university student to tell him how cool his mom is- she invited the students to her house for Thanksgiving!
There were too many folksy musical interludes that added nothing to the plot and would have been better suited to a hipster revival of Hee Haw.
The final stage, when Mason is college bound, does not disappoint. As the family disperses, there is a great deal of sadness and anticipation. Up to the very end there is a flavor of a work in progress with a heavily implied continuing journey.
There were several moments where I was expecting the film to take a catastrophic turn; for examples when unsupervised underage teens drink and party, or text and drive. I was waiting for a bloody accident or even worse, death. If you can tamper your blood lust, the slow and delicate pace will draw you in.