Six year-old Mason (Coltrane) lives with his mom (Arquette) and sister Samantha (Linklater) in Texas, Dad (Hawke) having recently left. We follow his and the family’s life over the next 12 years, as boy becomes man.
Back in 2001, having most recently released the 86-minute real-time camcorder drama Tape, Richard Linklater conceived an “impractical idea” that would, in contrast, sporadically absorb him for the next 12 to 13 years: “the story of a parent-child relationship that follows a boy from the first through the 12th grade and ends with him going off to college”. Unique in scope and potential pitfalls — would he find actors who could commit for so many years? What if his lead child evolved into a sub-par performer? Would he be able to fashion a coherent narrative around such a nebulous notion? — Linklater’s gamble, revisited for a few scenes each year and becoming, in his words, like a “summer camp art project”, is in fact an absolute gem, possibly the director’s masterpiece to date.
Casting long-time collaborator Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as his young protagonist’s divorced parents, and his own daughter, Lorelei, as older sister Samantha, the hunt was on for the child who would play Mason from age six to 18, a pretty immense undertaking. Linklater would eventually select first-time actor Ellar Coltrane and, happily, as Mason grows from reserved, whimsical youngster into very much his own man, Coltrane emerges as a true talent, uncannily convincing as Hawke’s son and, by the film’s end, a performer of such languid charisma that he could be Hollywood’s next heartthrob, should that be where his ambitions lie.
Covering 2001 to 2013 — or, in Linklater’s terms, Coldplay to Daft Punk, no title-card spoonfeeding here — we begin with Mason aged six, his (at this point) bohemian slacker dad Mason Sr. just back in town after a commitment-shy escape to Alaska, his mom Olivia struggling to combine single-parenthood with ambitions to self-betterment via a return to college. Mason and Samantha’s concerns are those of every child — school, sibling rivalries, friendships, secret dens, arcane collections, and in this case a vague hope that Mom and Dad will get back together. Their parents, meanwhile, have their own joys and sadnesses, ambitions and worries — while boyhood is the central theme, Linklater (scripting here as well as directing) has as much to say about being a grown-up as being a child. And so life goes on, ebbing and flowing across the years, signposted by changing hairstyles, thickening and thinning waists, new relationships, homes, jobs and schools. There is no plot here in a conventional sense; instead, as Hawke puts it, “timelapse photography of a human being”.
And yet things happen. One of the perhaps unexpected joys of Boyhood for a contemporary Western audience is that it is also timelapse photography of our last decade or so. We glimpse the run-up to Obama’s first election, the arrival of the iPod, and a father-son campfire discussion on possible future Star Wars movies — filmed before that earth-shattering announcement of May 2013. It’s hard to remember that Linklater wasn’t writing these scenes with hindsight, but there’s an extra pleasure in recalling that he didn’t. When it comes to the minutiae of his characters’ lives, meanwhile (an excruciating but very funny parent-child conversation about sex; terrifying brushes with alcoholism; new babies in the ever-expanding family), Linklater again excels at creating believable, appealing people. They’re not perfect, Olivia repeatedly picking men who will let her down, Mason Sr. taking his time to do his own growing up, but they’re all so personable, you want to hang out with them, eating the cheese-on-sticks at Olivia’s laidback, intellectual soirees, or kicking back on the sofa with Mason Sr. and his aging rocker roommate. This is in part down to wonderful writing, but also to a cast — from both kids to Arquette, and a fine ensemble of supporting actors — who convince completely as their characters evolve and mature. If this film had been released in December, Hawke would be a shoo-in for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination, so engaging is his performance.
But this is above all a Richard Linklater joint. Almost an apotheosis of his films to date, the Texan director has a way of making life seem magical and so much fun, while tinged with melancholy at its disappointments and the inevitable passage of time. Like a greatest hits of Richard, there are echoes of Dazed And Confused as an adolescent Mason and his pals hang out with older kids in a mid-renovation house, chugging beers as they fool around with a chainsaw blade and flim-flam about invented sexual experiences. A few years later, Mason and his girlfriend spend all night walking and talking their way round Austin, two kids confidently, easily in love but, as in Before Sunrise, with so many unexpected twists and turns ahead. Like last year’s Before Midnight, though, this is a more mature, wiser Linklater — and again all the richer for it. A great big hug of a film, you don’t have to have been a boy to relate, just a child; nor do you have to have been a parent — just a person trying to figure it out.
Linklater’s beautiful film is an extraordinary achievement — tender, funny, wise and wistful, full of warmth and humanity.