Boyhood is a milestone in the history of filmmaking. Having been in production for the 12 year period during which its central actor went from boy to man, it is possibly the single most ambitious coming-of-age movie ever created. Usually a film like this would be shot within the span of one single year and rely on recasting when the time came to flash forward to the main character’s adolescence or adulthood. This is a film that plays no such trick. We truly are watching 12 years of someone’s life. We are watching a person grow up. It’s a movie experience that does not happen often.
Announced in 2002 as The Twelve-Year Project and filmed in snippets every year since then up until 2013, still using the same cast every time, it was finally finished for release in July 2014, at which point it seemingly took the world by storm. The man behind the project is Richard Linklater of School of Rock fame, and the six-year-old boy he cast as the center point of his grand story is Ellar Coltrane. Today he’s 19 years of age.
The character he plays is Mason Evans Jr., whom we first meet in his elementary school years. He lives with his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), who’s one clever little girl. The divorced father is the playful but not too well-off Mason Evans Sr. played by Ethan Hawke, loved by the kids but neglected by the mother due to his childish nature. Watching scenes that feature the younger selves of both Hawke and Arquette in 2014 is fascinating in a way, and as Coltrane visibly ages in front of the camera, they are shown aging along with him.
The kids’ eventual step-father is a seemingly more wealthy man named Bill (Marco Perella), but he is also more abusive and ruthless; thus neither they nor their mother stick around for very long. The family moves around a lot in the movie and Mason is scarcely happy about how troublesome things turn out, especially after they ditch Bill. His real father keeps in touch and remains enthusiastically positive and fun-loving, but as time moves on, the father too ends up in a not too good place.
Throughout it all, Mason learns new things about the world via the friends he makes, the new non-blood relatives he gets (including another step-dad played by Brad Hawkins), the difficult moments he endures, and the occasional awkward conversation with Ethan Hawke’s character.
Boyhood is most certainly something out of the ordinary. The last time I was this deeply moved and fascinated by a modern movie production was Cloud Atlas, but I also found this film vaguely similar to Terrence Malick‘s The Tree of Life, only this one is infinitely more easy to follow.
There’s something about the massively creative way in wich this film was put together that creates memories of ones own childhood years, most probably thanks to how true to life the movie feels. It retells certain points in history, not by recreating them, but by showing the reactions of people who were there when they actually happened, one example being when Mason goes to the book premiere of Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince. A scene I liked even more is one set in 2008 when Masons Jr. and Sr. are out bonding/camping, and they start talking about the future of the Star Wars films. “Let’s face it,” says Mason Sr., “there’s nothing after Return of the Jedi, it’s clearly over right there.” If only he knew.
It also helps that the actors, on top of aging naturally before our eyes, add to the realism by giving performances that are so great that they become indistinguishable from normal human beings that you might have grown up around and started your own existence with. Anyone who goes to the movies will recognize Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, but soon enough you practically forget that they are actors and they become very real individuals with very real issues and struggles. Even more impressive are the kids, who behave like real kids would behave, complete with the eagerness, the curiosity, the occasional fights, and the way they evolve as people. Once again it’s easy to be reminded of friends from the past and how decreasingly simple life became as time moved on faster and faster.
The actors even manage to act their way through long shots, of which the film has plenty. The camera work in general is pleasing to behold and the use of lengthy shots helps put the talents of the cast on full display. My favourite one is when Mason’s walking next to a girl on a bike and they have what sounds like a flawlessly natural teen-conversation for the entirety of what must have been a 2 minute tracking shot, tops. Not bad for youngsters.
Boyhood is also one of those rare movies where the unusually long runtime feels warranted and skillfully taken advantage of, given that all those hours feel necessary to tell the full story. One such film that comes to mind is David Fincher‘s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which was also focused around one person’s life, only it covered a much larger time span and the main character was aging backwards. Close enough.
This film has a lot to offer for any who chose to see it. Stellar performances (child actors not excluded), believable dialogue, great cinematography, a beautiful but bittersweet tone of nostalgia over the whole thing, and just a genuinely breathtaking scope. If you want a film that’s unlike any other, consider Boyhood. It’s really somethin’.