Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke
Running time: 165 minutes
Rated: R for language including sexual references, and for drug and alcohol use
Bottomline: Totally unique cinematic landmark
Any discussion of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” necessarily begins with how the film was made, because that alone is practically a miracle.
Linklater began filming in 2002. He cast 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane as Mason, the boy of the title, his own 8-year-old daughter, Lorelei, as Mason’s sister Samantha, and Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as their divorced parents. All four actors committed to working on the project for 12 years.
They filmed during brief shoots, ranging from three days to a month, each year until principal photography wrapped last October. Several supporting actors also committed for several years of filming.
No one in the history of motion pictures had ever done something like this.
The finished product is a thoroughly naturalistic, 165-minute film that plays like a lived experience rather than a movie. It never feels like a gimmick or the experiment that it is.
Linklater has somehow focused all this work into an intimate yet epic film too profound to be lumped in among coming-of-age movies that rely on the same old set pieces such as the first kiss, prom, graduation ceremony, etc.
“Boyhood” is a genuine bildungsroman, a novel dealing with one person’s formative years or spiritual education, written in images instead of words. Just ponder how amazing it is that this production resulted in a coherent, cohesive movie at all.
The actors all maintain consistent characters and acting style in spite of the shooting schedule. That alone is mind-boggling, especially considering the child actors’ ages and lack of experience. Arquette and Hawke undoubtedly helped anchor their performances, but Linklater deserves an Oscar merely for his direction of his child actors.
Think also about how radically filmmaking has evolved over the past 12 years. Yet, the film is visually consistent from start to finish. The craft evidenced by this movie is awe-inspiring.
“Boyhood” will occupy a unique place in film history. (Please take note of that, because some say American cinema no longer offers anything original.) If it can be grouped with previous films at all, it is among legendary company.
The great French director Francois Truffaut made five films about the character Antoine Doinel, played each time by Jean-Pierre Léaud. Linklater has done something similar in his “Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight” films. But those series examined characters at different stages of life and were filmed using more conventional methods.
Others have compared “Boyhood” to the “Up” documentary series or the Harry Potter movies. Sorry, but those are not equitable comparisons.
No fictional film has ever been made this way or focused on a character’s internal development during one phase of life with such realism.
Not that it’s a perfect film. Some scenes don’t work, and Mason’s upbringing is distinctly bourgeois. His life will be familiar to anyone from a middle-class, suburban American background. But it might seem trite to those who grew up battling more severe finances or social prejudice.
Yet there is no denying the film captures the essence of several stages of growing up.
Its insights aren’t exclusive to boyhood, either. This is as much about parenthood as childhood. Mason’s mom and dad are rendered with fearless vulnerability by Arquette and Hawke.
Perhaps the greatest wisdom the movie offers is conversations parents often consider meaningless can be crucial, formative moments in a child’s life. Everything parents say and do matters, and that is a deeply humbling realization.
“Boyhood” doesn’t offer a single, grand epiphany, but rather numerous revelations such as this. It makes the familiar unfamiliar and allows us to view seemingly mundane situations from a different perspective.
It burrows its way into our consciousness, quietly but permanently. Spend a few hours watching it, but be warned. It will stay with you for much longer.
Jeff Marker is head of the Communication, Media & Journalism Department at the University of North Georgia. His reviews appear weekly in Get Out and on gainesvilletimes.com/getout.