True originality is rare in the cinema, perhaps the most self-referential and cannibalistic of all the art forms.
But with “Boyhood” Texas auteur Richard Linklater has given us something so fresh and new it boggles the mind.
The gimmick is that Linklater filmed the picture over 12 years, each year shooting a few new scenes featuring the same actors.
His central character, Mason, is portrayed from age 6 to 18 by Ellar Coltrane, who is as natural in his scenes as a college freshman as he was as a first grader when the movie began almost three hours earlier.
It isn’t just Mason who grows up before our eyes. Everyone in the cast undergoes the transformation dictated by the passage of time — Lorelei Linklater (the filmmaker’s daughter), who plays Mason’s sassy older sister Samantha, and Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who portray their divorced parents. (Hawke, of course, is with Julie Delpy the star of Linklater’s “Before…” series, which to date has produced three movies examining a romantic relationship over two decades.)
Early in this review I called “Boyhood’s” setup a gimmick. Well, if this is a gimmick it is a singularly profound gimmick, one that packs an overwhelming emotional punch. By using the same actors at various stages in their lives Linklater is able to meld the specific with the universal in a way I’ve never before experienced in a fiction film.
Our awareness of the passage of time in the faces of real people is so potent that it eliminates the need for conventional dramatic construction — because there’s nothing quite so dramatic as being immersed in human mortality.
As a result, “Boyhood” hasn’t anything like an actual plot. It’s as if we’ve dedicated a weekend each year to visiting a cousin and his family. We only actually experience what goes on during that weekend, yet those few shared moments suggest what their life is like the rest of the time when we’re not there. “Boyhood” doesn’t need big dramatic moments — it’s the accumulation of small snippets of insight that add up to its humbling power.
On a universal level, “Boyhood” presents Mason as the average American kid. One who enjoys biking and playing, one who has a love/hate relationship with his sister, who becomes upset when his family is uprooted and moved to another locale, who gradually begins to understand the responsibilities of adulthood, works bussing tables at a restaurant, falls in love for the first time and gradually discovers the passion (in his case photography) that he will cling to in coming years.
On a specific level, the film — while not strictly biographical — reflects Linklater’s own Texas upbringing, which undoubtedly accounts for its sense of authenticity and richness of detail.
As portrayed by Arquette, Mason’s struggling single mother is an intelligent and ambitious woman crippled by her unfortunate choices in men. As the movie’s outset, Mason’s father has been gone for nearly a year, reportedly working in Alaska. Mom has taken up with a selfish young guy who angrily resents that he must play second fiddle to her children. She does what she always does when faced with a romance gone bad — she packs the kids in the car and moves to another town.
Mom begins taking junior college classes and falls for one of her professors (Marco Perella), a white-haired intellectual whose own son and daughter are melded with Mason and Samantha into an extended family. But his professorial grace masks a drinking problem that slides into violence, leading to another escape to another town — where Mom takes up with an Iraq war vet/prison guard (Steven Chester Price) who, while no bully, sinks into a morass of beer fumes and emotional vacancy.
By the end of “Boyhood” Mom — now the possessor of a degree in (oh, the irony) psychology — has decided she’s better off alone.
Hawke’s character, Mason Sr., is a classic Peter Pan whose first impulse is to backpedal from responsibility. He can play the devoted, fun-loving, gift-dispensing daddy for a weekend, but he is too much a child himself to be a full-time caregiver.
It isn’t until he hits middle age that Mason Sr. finally grows up, remarrying and having a baby with his new wife. He’s always been decent if borderline unreliable — at long last he’s a true mensch.
At the center of “Boyhood” is young Coltrane, who goes from kindergarten cute to a scrawny, hirsuite adolescence. Having spent three hours in his presence, I cannot say if he’s acting or just being. His performance is unforced, anti-melodramatic and perfectly modulated. The one thing it doesn’t look like is acting.
But then that goes for the entire cast, even the seasoned professionals. Nobody is grandstanding, nobody is looking for an Oscar moment. That applies not only to the leads but to the supporting players like Tom McTigue, who as one of Mason’s high school mentors delivers a monologue so full of ache and concern and tough love that you wish every educator had his stuff.
Given the film’s lengthy production period, Linklater’s ability to maintain a constant tone is little short of astounding. A project like this could be more a matter of traffic control than artistry, but in virtually every instance Linklater has opted for a low-keyed, insightful approach that pulls us ever deeper into Mason’s world.
“Masterpiece” isn’t too strong a word. You’ll be talking about this one for a long time.