We’ve seen coming-of-age films many times before. Out of all likelihood, the movie would feature a child actor portray the character at a young age, and a different actor would take over the role when the character ages in the film. A film shoot may take only a year or so, and so there simply isn’t time for an actor to grow up, literally, with his or her character. But in director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood—the story of a boy dealing with life and the fragilities of growing up from age 6 to 18—Linklater has the same young actor (Ellar Coltrane) portray our protagonist, Mason, throughout the entirety of the film. In other words, the film required 12 years of filming so Coltrane could age with his character. The end result of Linklater’s unheard-of undertaking is a deeply involving coming-of-age story unlike any other.
The film opens in 2002 with six-year-old Mason lying on the grass, looking up to the skies, and his arm outstretched as though he was reaching out to the world that’s out there for his little hand to take hold of. Coldplay’s song Yellow opens the film, which is appropriate considering the year and the popularity of the song at the time. The film quickly takes us into Mason’s life—he lives in a small house with his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and their divorced mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). The kids are visited and taken out by their slacker father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), every once in a while. And with divorce comes disagreement and unpleasantness between the two exes, which the kids have known and seen all too well in their young lives.
The film invites us into Mason’s life as he lives it. We see how he deals with the things that come with growing up—moving away with his family to a different city, attending a new school, being constantly annoyed by an older sister, watching his mother remarry, and being a part of a newly extended family. We see Mason deal with the delicate nature of adolescence as he ages and the endless saga of family life, in particular, when his new stepfather, Bill (Marco Perella), becomes an abusive alcoholic. We see Mason’s struggles and triumphs with growing up and his eventual desire to discover and express his true identity. We see preteen Mason’s devastation at being forced to get a haircut he didn’t want and how it speaks volumes for his desire to be able to be himself. Many of us have been there at this age.
What makes the film so special and unique is that it’s relatable. Many of us remember growing up and all the trials and tribulations we went through over the years. What the film sets out to express, very vividly through Coltrane’s remarkable performance, is that childhood is a crucial time for learning (sometimes the hard way) about the difficulties of life, the desires for expressing one’s identity, and the hopes and directions one would want to take to figure out his or her place in the world once high school (childhood) is over. It’s through Linklater’s vision that we are taken back through that journey from innocence to adulthood. We see Coltrane grow up, and it’s quite something to see him turn from a young boy lying in the grass, taking in the world around him, to a young man who needs to figure out where his life will lead him with the arrival of adulthood. The film relies heavily on us caring about this boy, and it’s through Coltrane’s honest portrayal and Linklater’s compelling storytelling and direction that we do.
Also worthy of recognition in the film is Arquette, who delivers an excellent supporting turn here as a woman doing the best she can for herself and her children despite life’s many setbacks and heartbreaks.
Linklater deserves a great deal of acclaim for his bold, patient undertaking in Boyhood. Despite its summer theatrical release, I’m hoping it’s remembered come Oscar time. It’s a relatable and unforgettable journey through a young boy’s life, and it’s a film I highly recommend.
5 out of 5 stars
This is the story of a boy as he grows up from age 6 to 18 and charts his path from the innocence of childhood to the realities and possibilities of adulthood.