You’ve never seen a movie like Boyhood.
Released in July, Richard Linklater’s newest film is equal parts experiment, documentary, time capsule, teen flick, and heavy drama. It took twelve years to make.
He filmed the same cast — the same actors — as a family over the course of twelve years. He watched them age together, all while weaving a narrative that feels like home video recordings strung together. We follow one boy, Mason, from age five to eighteen. With no voice-over narration, we are simply observers, never knowing what is going on in his head.
Going in, I assumed it would be pretty arty, a film too pretentiously caught up with what it is trying to do to have much of an emotional impact. I expected a nostalgic ode to a childhood that traversed the turn of a millennium, beginning with road maps and ending with iPhones.
I assumed the boy in Boyhood would fill in as the American boy that all American boys should relate to. Perhaps the vehicle for a filmmaker’s statement on American culture, or an ode to a masculine American archetype: the young boy playing baseball, playing in the yard.
What we get instead is a surprisingly ensemble piece led by powerful performances and a boy who does not adhere to a masculine stereotype at all. Mason, played for twelve years by Ellar Coltrane, is sensitive, artistic, detached. He’s not really that nice, and at times not that likable.
It’s so weird to see Ethan Hawke so young onscreen at the beginning of the film.
The most dynamic character is Mason’s mother, played by Partricia Arquette, who deserves an Oscar nod for the role.
The film does better. It keep Mason’s sexual orientation a little ambiguous. We assume he’s straight, or at least bisexual, but a few parting looks and some purple-painted fingernails are just enough to quietly challenge that. He makes out with a few girls but is generally awkward. He’s skinny and slumped, with pretty eyes and stylish locks. His generic boyhood produces an alternative, punk teen with a talent for photography and a distrust of technology.
His sexuality is never discussed. What is more on the table is his disillusionment, his distance from his family, his need to escape.
Coltrane grows up lean, ruggedly handsome.
Sure, there are imperfections. It’s hard to ever get believable performances out of child actors. Around the teenage years there’s a lot of caricature among the boys.
Boyhood is the most intimate and tender coming-of-age stories I’ve seen in a long time. Refusing to shy away from controversial topics — privacy and social media, the value of education, religion, the 2008 election, and the fleeting nature of existence — Boyhood is the childhood film we’ve been needing.