Richard Linklater, director, script and co-producer
Starring: Ellar Coltrane (Mason, Jr.), Patricia Arquette (Olivia), Ethan Hawke (Mason, Sr.), Lorelei Linklater (Samantha), Marco Perella (Prof. Bill Welbrock), Zoe Graham (Sheena)
Boyhood is one of the bravest projects attempted by a contemporary filmmaker and it’s nice to join in the chorus of acclaim Richard Linklater has received for rolling the dice and coming up aces. For those who have missed the near-viral hysteria surrounding his fiercely independent film, here’s the deal. In the summer of 2002, Linklater, already the Texas Indie darling for directing the quirky, odd and charming films Slacker, Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise, decided that he would like to follow the progress of a boy from the 1st grade to 12th and finish off with him getting ready for his first year in college.
A version of the idea had been done before by Michael Apted in his popular Seven Up series, in which he has followed a group of Brits every seven years from childhood to middle age—in the latest iteration, they’re 56. But that award-winning documentary series risks less than Linklater, who isn’t documenting an ever-changing group of participants.(Some have dropped out for decades only to return).
What Linklater chose to do in Boyhood was to find a seven-year old, place him periodically with a fictional family comprised of actors, and create new dramatic scenes with them each year for twelve years.
So many things could have gone wrong. Any of the key participants might have become sick or died. The lead, a child of itinerant musicians named Ellar Coltrane, could have become bored or developed an antipathy for the project. His film family—big sister Samantha played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei; mother Olivia essayed by Patricia Arquette or divorced dad Mason featuring Ethan Hawke, might have grown restless with their roles.
Happily for Linklater, his key actors remained loyal and healthy and now more than twelve years on, the tale of Mason, Jr.—Ellar Coltrane—has hit screens across North America. What is the nature of his accomplishment?
It turns out to be moving and complexly involving to watch people—especially “Mason, Jr.”—grow older while dealing with situations that range from the ordinary to the highly dramatic. As a seven-year-old, young Mason, Jr. and his sister Samantha are helpless as their parents Olivia and Mason, Sr. split up. One sees the powerlessness of children as their lives are transformed by that huge event, which is fairly rapidly followed by Olivia falling in love with one of her professors, Bill Welbrock (a very effective Marco Perella) at the university, where she’s gone to better herself.
Stories that would likely appear to be melodramatic acquire genuine authority when played scene-by-scene over a period of years. Slowly, we see as Professor Bill and Olivia marry and start to raise a family with four kids, two of Bill’s as well as Samantha and Mason, Jr. The impact of Bill’s alcoholism becomes devastating when viewed over several years. When Bill absolutely melts down and has a temper tantrum, the terror and confusion of the kids and Olivia, becomes all too real. Simply by shooting the film year by year, Linklater has acquired some of the trappings of authenticity that naturally occurs in documentaries.
Ethan Hawke is such a fine actor that his presence as Mason, Sr. rarely appears as a tour-de-force. But he does offer a high note to his “kids” as they grow up, forced to deal with Olivia (Arquette), who has bettered herself, becoming a psychology professor, but is barely coping with the demands of motherhood. It’s unfair but Mason, Sr. often looks better—the single dad taking them bowling or camping, trying his best to make their alternate weekends together exciting and meaningful.
As the years go by, Samantha moves from a grumpy big sister into someone who casually helps Mason, Jr. When she reaches college-age, she’s happy to host her brother at her university. Mason, Jr. has become a quiet but hip kid, athletic enough to be liked by guys but handsome and nice in a way that’s appealing to girls. It’s no surprise that he brings his girlfriend Sheena to his weekend, visiting Samantha’s school. Nor is it a shock when the ways of young love prove less than smooth.
Over twelve years of shooting and two and a half hours of film, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood gradually acquires the gravitas of an epic 19th century novel. Time passes in a manner similar to a masterpiece by Dickens or Tolstoy. “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” So it is with this family, who become more involving and emotionally appealing as time goes by.
So, huzzah. Maybe there could have been more in this film but it isn’t obvious how the story might have been improved. While Boyhood’s documentary elements imbue it with a feeling of truthfulness, it is the emotional honesty of the creative ensemble—Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and above all, Ellar Coltrane—that make this film a powerful and meaningful experience. Let’s hope that more filmmakers take as many chances as Richard Linklater.