You’ve never seen a movie like Boyhood. Released in July, Richard Linklater’s new film is a coming-of-age story that doubles as a soaring cinematic experiment. The film took twelve years to make.
He filmed the same actors as a family over the course of twelve years. As they age and develop, he weaves a narrative that feels like home video recordings strung together. We follow one boy, Mason, from five to eighteen. With no voice-over narration, we are simply observers, watching someone grow.
What’s remarkable is that, over the course of the twelve years, the original actors had waxing and waning careers. The quality of the picture itself changes — filmmaking technology has advanced — and the editing and filmmaking styles of the latter part of the film are different. After all, a director evolves too over that length of time.
I feared the whole thing would be too pretentiously caught up with what it is trying to do to have much of an emotional impact. I was wrong. Mason, played for twelve years by Ellar Coltrane, is sensitive, artistic, detached. He’s not really that nice, and at times not that likable, but we follow him through his growth into a sensitive and misunderstood young man.
The most dynamic character of the film is Mason’s mother, played by Patricia Arquette, who deserves an Oscar nod. Her final, heartbreaking scene when Mason is packing for college had me in tears.
In his teens, Mason’s sexual orientation remains ambiguous. We assume he’s straight, or at least bisexual until some parting looks and purple nail polish quietly challenge that. The boy grows into a young man, wiry and intense, with sharp eyes. The film avoids classifying him completely as a gay or straight teenager, and instead focuses more on his disillusionment, his distance from his family, his need to escape.
Yes, there are imperfections. It’s hard to get believable performances out of child actors. In Mason’s early teenage years, several of his friends are caricature performances, and the film goes a little flat. But all in all, Boyhood is an intimate study of observation and evolution, an experiment we delight in witnessing.