What a year! Both Boyhood (2014) and Birdman come out, both with two “gimmicks” that test the conventions and abilities of filmmaking. I find both “gimmicks” as incredible ideas that bring artistry back to filmmaking. In Boyhood, director Richard Linklater follows the life of a boy over 12 years. In the span of two hours and forty-five minutes, you literally see a boy grow up. It’s absolutely incredible.
Boyhood follows the life of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), a six-year old boy. He has an older sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater) who is two years older than him. They live with their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) who starts the film as a struggling single mother. Each year, they filmed a little bit, creating a story that spans 12 years. What this film does that other movies with similar themes never achieve is clearly and artfully articulating the process of growing up. What I mean by that is that you not only see the children physically grow older but you actually see them become the people they will be as adults. Samantha starts out as a spunky and chatty girl. Over the years, she becomes introverted and reserved, always hiding behind a pair of headphones or a cell phone keyboard. She doesn’t make much trouble, she goes to college, and she’ll be alright. She makes a pretty big change though, from outgoing to withdrawn, which is fascinating to watch.
Mason Jr. makes another big change. He starts off also chatty, a little strange, but sweet. Over the years, dealing with a couple of horrible alcoholic step-fathers, plenty of moving, seeing his mom finish school and stabilize the household, and interacting with his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), his journey through boyhood is a little more colorful than his sister’s. He deals with varying degrees of work ethic. He experiments with drugs and alcohol. He finds a passion for photography which keeps him motivated through high school. He becomes a soft-spoken young man with a hint of an anarchy streak in him. He doesn’t open up to people very often, but when he does, he’s loyal. He basically becomes a hipster artist who somehow sidestepped a move to Austin, Texas. This film really accentuates what parents see over the years, succinctly in a film: children meander around, looking for their personalities and characters until they finally discover themselves and root themselves into the adults they will be. I don’t have children and I don’t have any younger siblings, so I haven’t really been aware of this phenomenon. The film brings it to life artistically with poignant clarity.
Arquette delivers the performance of a lifetime. She starts off as a struggling single mother, who works so hard juggling parenting and school in order to give her children a better life. She stumbles into two bad marriages, one of which was very toxic. She finally landed a great job and was able to finally start giving her children a comfort and stability in life they hadn’t ever experienced. Her character is incredibly dynamic and her performance is just as dynamic and beautifully nuanced. At the turn of a hat she can switch from a loving mother to the strict parent and to a vulnerable person. What I find wonderful about her character is that, despite the ill-suited men she kept marrying and their thoughts about her children, she always trusted her children. Even as Mason started experimenting and saying out later, she knew him and trusted him, and I believe that Mason valued that trust and never abused it. Patricia Arquette will surely be winning an Oscar tonight.
Not only is Boyhood a meaningful journey through life, it’s also funny. The film sports a lot of pop culture references that keep each year distinguishable from the one before and after. Early in the film, Samantha smacks Mason with a pillow and starts dancing and singing to Britney Spears’ “Oops…I Did it Again”. Such a funny moment. Later on in the film, Mason and his dad are shooting the breeze and start wondering if there ever will be any more Star Wars movies, which, in itself isn’t funny, but it’s hilarious when the movie comes out the year before a new Star Wars movie is released. Humor is an important part of the recipe for Boyhood. It’s not enough to have a solemn look at the upbringing of children. If there’s no humor and laughter in life, what’s the point? I think the humor beautifully balances out the drama in Boyhood.
I had the opportunity to see Boyhood right when it came out and I missed it. Ever since, I have been eagerly waiting to see it, as it gained more and more acclaim and accolade. Finally, I’ve seen it, and while I wasn’t able to identify with it very much, I was astounded with the story and means of telling that story. The attention and care that Linklater took to actually make this film happen, year after year over twelve years, is absolutely remarkable. For that, I expect him to win an Oscar for Best Director tonight. He had the forbearance to recognize that he had a great cast, particularly in his boy star, who he had to believe would grow into his talents. Boyhood has a remarkable cast who performs beautifully, especially for revisiting their characters once a year. For me, the most important impact from Boyhood is the marvel parents must feel to see their children become the men and women they find for themselves.