A young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lies on his back and stares blissfully above; there is no narration or insight into his thoughts. His motive is unclear, but he offers a look of inspired contemplation. The moment then simply passes, and he moves on. This is a film not akin to other melodrama filled, coming-of-age narratives. There is no life-changing moment, no tragic event, it is rather an unassuming observation of youth and the fleeting nature of life.
Richard Linklater was the subject of significant media interest last year when he released details of a 12 year project; a single film following the same cast throughout the early 21st century. We watch Mason, his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) mature and age before our very eyes. Similar concepts have been done before, but never before has such a timespan been documented into one compact viewing experience. This is a minimalist epic; an understated narrative yet a landmark for cinematic achievement.
The premise is very simple; we follow Mason from ages seven to 18 as he struggles with being a child of divorce. We see both parents through various relationships, and thus find both children constantly moving homes and without stability. The children grow, have complicated school lives, find their interests, graduate, and eventually go to college. Therein lies the entire story. The beauty of the film lies not in the plot, but in its subtlety, themes and nostalgia. We see an innocent child obsessing over Harry Potter, watching Dragon Ball Z, and playing Game Boy, before watching that same child drive, smoke, and drink alcohol. Characteristic of Linklater, he never shows us the typical milestone events; we never see Mason learn to ride a bike, his first photograph, or his first kiss. Not every moment in the film is of significance, but the cumulative experience truly reflects the ebb and flow of life.
These seemingly small, ordinary moments are some of the most powerful. An early scene shows the family moving for the first time. As they are driving away, Mason sees his best friend trying to keep up on his bike, waving. He never said goodbye, and he’ll never see him again. They never make a big deal of these scenes, yet there are plenty of them in the film, and they happen just as naturally as those moments we overlook in our own lives.
The sparse, unconventional tale would not hold together without the exceptional acting on display. Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater bring their characters to life, but the parents are the ones that truly excel. Hawke is brilliant as the freewheeling, not quite grown up father, offering humour and advice to the reserved children. Likewise, Arquette is flawless as the troubled mother. A deeply complicated role, Olivia lives her life still believing a textbook husband-wife-two-children is the key to happiness. In a brilliant comparison of social conditioning and youthful naïveté, Olivia asks Samantha for understanding in wanting to build a “family” with a new boyfriend, to which Samantha angrily replies, “We already have a family!”
Sheer in scope, with more production and cooperation problems than we could even imagine, Boyhood is a miracle. Rare is it that a film both encapsulates what cinema is about, as well as expands on what it could become. It is the best movie of the year, and could very well become the most accomplished film of the generation. Linklater, with another masterpiece, yet again proves that when casting time as a lead actor, his directorial hand is unmatched.