There is a telling scene deep inside "Boyhood" that gets at the essential core of the emotional appeal of Richard Linklater's startling new film. It takes place in a rural church with a pastor sermonizing about doubting Thomas and faith and those who believe without seeing.
That ability to believe without seeing most certainly guides this film. Writer-director Linklater couldn't have known where 12 years of shooting this story would lead, following a boy and his family — and the actors who play them — across time. But we are blessed that he did, because it has resulted in an extraordinarily intimate portrait of a life unfolding and an exceptional, unconventional film in which not much else occurs. Never has so little meant more.
Though the list of players expands and contracts through the years, the central family unit consists of Ellar Coltrane as the boy, Mason Jr.; Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter, as older sister Samantha; Patricia Arquette as single-mom Olivia; and Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr., the father who is finding his way back into his kids' lives as the film begins.
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The process was an unusual one to say the least. Starting in 2002, each year Linklater would begin the conversation with the cast, starting with Coltrane, talking about life and change. Then the filmmaker would write, next he would gather his cast for a few days of shooting. Finally Linklater and his longtime editor Sandra Adair would edit the footage and store it away. Year after year, the movie moved forward, taking shape, growing up alongside Mason. It can sound like a gimmick, but it's anything but; Linklater's leap of faith has given us an experience as much as a film.
There is wonder to be found in the very ordinariness of "Boyhood," from the clouds 6-year-old Mason watches in the opening scene to the rock ridge where as a new college freshman he is perched and pondering life in the film's final moments. It is a credit to Linklater's facility with long-form storytelling that even after nearly three hours, I didn't want the movie to end.
Though it has mythical qualities, "Boyhood" is framed by specific realities and perpetual ambiguity. Olivia's first major decision — to move the family to Houston — is rooted in the stack of bills in front of her, the dead-end job. Houston is the promised land where her mother can help with the kids, she can go back to school, make a better life. Dreams propel her forward into a future she can't foresee.
For the kids it's a constant uprooting. They feel the change differently though the framing is the same — leaving everything they know for everything they don't, it's harder for them to see the promise. That motif of movement is one of "Boyhood's" constants. Stepparents, blended families, girlfriends, teachers, divorces, interests, ideas, disruptions flow through the years and provide the narrative structure.
The time transitions are remarkably seamless — Mason walks down a hallway at one age, turns a corner and is a few years older. It works, especially since all the details shift as fluidly, the difference embedded in the clothes, hair, video games, music and of course the faces.
Mason and Samantha, Coltrane and young Linklater literally grow up in front of us. But in their own way, the changes in Olivia and Mason Sr., Arquette and Hawke, are just as marked.
Though the themes are serious, the film is filled with a lightness. Mason, sprawled on his bed, rolling his eyes as a 9-year-old Samantha makes him a captive audience to her singing and dancing, says everything about the way siblings rely on, relate to and test each other.
A few scenes later, after Dad has blown back into town, his reconnecting with the kids spills into a bowling alley. After a few gutter balls, Mason wants bumpers so he can get a strike like his sister. Dad resists, a laid-back admonition to his son essentially to forget the bumpers, toughen up, take the knocks. Inside that moment is a father pushing his son toward adulthood, but it is also a man taking that first step into actual parenting. Mason Sr. will get better in time, growth comes to everyone in the film.
Because Linklater has wrapped the family around time, and time around that family, "Boyhood" allows you to see the dynamics from all sides. The way childhood innocence shifts into an increasingly informed state. That fusion of unconditional love and insistent worries about inadequacy that is parenthood.
There is a great balance between humor and pathos in each of the performances. Arquette and Hawke are masterful in following the arc of adults maturing in the wake of their mistakes. The actors, who've done so much fine work in their careers, bring a humanity, resilience and vulnerability to the roles that we've not seen quite as fully realized before. And Lorelei Linklater makes Samantha's transition from delightful youngster to petulant teen absolutely believable.
But Coltrane is the film's emotional glue. He is remarkable on-screen at every stage. Early on, he's a young boy of few words but even at 6 enough of a performer that he absorbs everything in ways that allow you to sense and see. As Mason grows, the dialogue and the emotions become more complex, and Coltrane's performance follows in kind.
The moody teen who turns to photography to express his artistic inclinations caught in an insolent glance at a disapproving teacher. The growing sense of care and understanding he quietly extends to his mother. The esoteric notions about existence emerging along with serious feelings for the girl he is sharing them with. All this Coltrane makes real. And out of the Coltrane-Mason connection, an actor emerges.
For all of its uniqueness, "Boyhood" is exactly the kind of film we should have expected Linklater to do. Over the span of his career, the filmmaker has proved to be as much a cultural anthropologist as writer-director, ever curious about how things will work out. His collaboration with Julie Delpy and Hawke in the brilliant "Before" trilogy — "Sunrise," "Sunset" and "Midnight," marking out a couple's various emotional states — extended over nearly two decades, the director and his stars creating an intimate expression of love and relationships.
There is also a veracity that infuses all of the director's work. If God is in the details, then Linklater is contemporary cinema's god. From the people that populate his films to the places they unfold, he threads that needle perfectly. In "Boyhood," it lives in everyone Mason encounters: the professor/stepfather (Marco Perella) descending into alcoholism and abuse. The remarkably gentle torch-passing in Grandpa Cliff's (Richard Jones) graduation gift to Mason — a rifle and a lesson on how to shoot. Every scene can be deconstructed in that way, broken apart into many small truths.
Along with the cast and the creator is "Boyhood's" equally adept crew. Cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly work as seamlessly as the film. Production designer Rodney Becker and costume designer Kari Perkins ensure Linklater gets the period changes right. Music supervisors Randall Poster and Meghan Currier are behind a soundtrack that sings of the passing of time from Coldplay to Arcade Fire.
I cannot remember when a film has moved me more or captured so well all the colors and shadings of the personal, yet universal process of becoming. It is tempting to pile on a thousand more superlatives. But I won't. Because the best way to experience the film is to do exactly that, experience it.
MPAA rating: R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Playing: At ArcLight, Hollywood; Landmark Theaters, West Los Angeles