When I first heard about Richard Linklater’s 12-year-long movie project months ago, I was confused. I didn’t fully understand the scope of the film and what Linklater meant to accomplish by filming something in this fashion—although Linklater is known for his “real-time” movies like the “Before Sunrise” trilogy—but I shrugged it off and forgot about the film altogether, until the I watched the trailer for it over the summer, at which point I was hooked and knew I needed to see this film.
And boy, was it worth it. The three-hour saga stars Ellar Coltrane as Mason Evans. The film tracks his life with his older sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater) and his mother Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette) over the course of 12 years, starting from when Mason is six. Filmed from 2002 to 2013, the cast, also including Ethan Hawke as Mason and Samantha’s flighty father, remained the same throughout the filming process. In essence, we actually get to see Mason and Samantha grow up and watch Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette grow into the actors we love right now.
Honestly, it’s hard to try to review a movie like this: So much is covered over the three-hour film. Issues of abuse and alcoholism, familial relationships, abandonment and responsibility all play major roles in what is in effect the greatest bildungsroman story I’ve seen in some time. Maybe what grounds this movie more for me is that I, myself, was growing up during the same years as Mason and Samantha. Mason’s ever-changing cast of video game consoles, from Game Boys to X-Boxes, was enough for me to connect with his character. Anybody who watches this film will find something to connect with.
While the narrative structure of the story was essentially simple, the technical aspects of putting together a film of this scale is just astounding. From 2002 to 2013, Linklater and his cast filmed for only 45 days. It makes sense when the movie comes together, with a decent portion of the movie being made up of small “snapshot” scenes between the larger narrative ones where we only get a glimpse into Mason’s life. We get the scene where Mason and Samantha attend a midnight sale for “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince” to another scene where one of Mason’s older friends introduces him to porn on the Internet. But even the overall narrative of the story is minimal. All we are doing is watching a family grow up together. There’s no melodrama, it’s all realistic in the most heartbreaking ways possible.
Of course, Mason is not the only character we see grow in the film. We start with his mother Olivia, a single mom struggling to make ends meet. The film starts with her decision to uproot her children and go back to school. We see Olivia get her degrees in order to become a psychology professor. She gets married twice, with varying results for both marriages. Olivia has her ups and downs, but none of it seems rushed or overly scripted. Instead, we see everything as natural progression, much like with Mason and Samantha growing up. It helps that Patricia Arquette does such an amazing job acting out her scenes and interacting with the kids themselves. In a way, Arquette really is their mother and that realism adds depth to this film that you don’t often see in family dramas.
The same progression occurs with the father. Ethan Hawke begins by playing a stoner dad to his kids, popping in and out of their lives while still trying to figure out his own. Over the years, he grows and matures, eventually settling down and starting a new family, all without forgetting his old one. Instead, he seamlessly integrates both and is able to turn into the father Mason and Samantha always wanted. He even ends on good terms with his ex-wife, Olivia, complimenting her on the great job she did raising their two children.
Sitting through “Boyhood,” I felt like I was growing up all over again, and it was amazing. I relived some of my favorite childhood moments over the course of three hours and found myself thinking philosophically about what it means to be alive. It sounds cheesy, but this film will make you think. Sure, some of the lines fell flat and some of the acting by the kids at the beginning was iffy, but I was willing to look past that, because I was seeing parts of my own childhood in there. I was seeing my mom tell me to get my homework done and my teachers push me to find something to care about and my dad feeding me just French fries for dinner because he didn’t know any better.
It’s hard to say what really brought this film home for me. Maybe it was the simplicity of the plot, or the strong relationship between the characters, or the realism and nostalgia of my own life. Maybe it was a little bit of everything. Either way, I left the theater utterly speechless. This is a film you need to watch to fully understand. Linklater created a masterpiece that is sure to live on.