An almost three-hour journey through many years in the life of a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), Boyhood is a long movie without much of a plot that was shot over the course of 12 years. That is impressive. Boyhood is a logistical marvel. Nobody was re-cast, a child who began the film at the age of, I think, six or seven years old wound up being in the film until he was 18 or 19. You know how we were all impressed with the Harry Potter movies more or less keeping the same cast for their entirety? This might be just as, if not more, impressive.
I mention Harry Potter because we learn that Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are Harry Potter fans in their youth. We see their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), reading to them when they are young. They even dress up as characters from the series in one scene. Their father is Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who begins the film living away from them but over the years winds up living closer, then farther, but being a relatively big part of their lives.
We watch the two grow up. Mason is our lead — hence why the film is called “Boyhood” — so we watch him the most, but it’s not like Samantha is ignored, either. We get to see their mother’s relationships, we watch them move, we see their own relationships, they attend various schools and make friends, and so on and so forth. All of the various childhood and teenage experiences that you can imagine are likely going to be presented here in one way or another. Art imitates life, and life isn’t always happy. There are lots of problems to watch and overcome, although for the first half of the film, the kids don’t really do anything themselves. They’re dragged along in life by their parents, to paraphrase another Richard Linklater film.
Boyhood is a compelling movie. It has good acting, it feels very realistic, it has intelligent dialogue, it has moment of humor and also moments of sadness, and its scope — 12 years of filming are shown in the final product — is unmatched. You get to know its characters so intimately that you want to see where they’re going for the entirety of its running time. When it ends, you’re kind of sad, because while not really possible, it would be great to follow these characters for their entire lives.
You have to applaud director Richard Linklater, all of the producers, and the actors. This might have only required a week or two of filming each year, but to keep it up for 12 years is remarkable. That it winds up as a single cohesive look into these characters lives speaks to he talent and vision of the director. In theory, these are a series of short films all starring the same characters, but they’ve been put together so well that they actually tell a story.
Ellar Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater are not experienced actors. Or, they weren’t when the project started out. Kids are not good actors in general, either. Some of the earliest scenes in the movie are a little cringeworthy because of the child acting. Both of them come into their own around the age of 10 and only get better from there. Some of the later scenes in the film contain genuinely great performances from both of them.
Meanwhile, the adults in the film were experienced coming in and are great from the word “go.” Patricia Arquette keeps everything anchored and has a fantastic turn as a (mostly) single mother just trying to keep everything together. Ethan Hawke tries to be the “cool” dad at the beginning but some of the heartfelt conversations he has with the children are fantastic and remind us that Hawke can be a great actor.
Whether you wind up liking Boyhood or disliking it, it’s almost impossible not to respect it. It takes a lot of talent and perseverance to create a movie in the way that Richard Linklater has. That it has strong acting, interesting characters, smart dialogue, important themes, and an enjoyable story shows us how visionary a director he can be. Boyhood is worth almost every moment of its 165-minute running time, and it never even begins to start to feel dull. You should see it.