Boyhood is an experience. When the credits roll after near 3 hours have gone by, I sit with my wife, emotionally consumed. So much to think about in a film where not too much happens. No car crashes, or huge epiphanies, or long set pieces or scenery chewing. I sit thinking about the boy and how he changes over time from an actively curious, wildly enthusiastic, responsible child to a passively curious, sullen, and introspective to the point of laziness teenager.
It’s a lot like life and how we change even when we don’t want to or while we’re not looking. This is a tricky bit writing and filmmaking but in the hands of Richard Linklater it becomes an unforgettable coming of age story without the Hollywood morality and life lessons.
The first hour is the most exciting, with the boy’s energy as the touchstone and introducing supportive characters who will do the heavy lifting in the second half. Characters like mother and father played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, though divorced are filled with so much love and tenderness for their children.
The children; boy played by Ellar Coltrane and girl played by Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter) are delightful as playful and warring siblings.
This foursome, as filmed over a 12 year period, gives natural and honest performances with real nicks and scratches. No one comes across as particularly cute or sentimentalized, rather having a lived-in, settled and comfortable feel, much like a well-worn flannel shirt.
Boyhood walks a tightrope with an exciting, fresh, idea that navigates the perils of growing up and how flat and boring it can be especially if nothing scandalous or harrowing or thrilling happens. As the teenagers, especially the boy, grow and becomes less verbal and less interesting, it is the supporting characters in his life keeping the scenes engrossing.
The best scene in the film takes place in a school darkroom, where the boy (an interested photographer) is confronted by the photography teacher about spending too much time poring over this pictures and not enough time with his schoolwork. The teacher is encouraging and complimentary while gently but firmly telling him he has to get his butt in gear and develop a life ethic with discipline and well-rounded aptitude otherwise the talent he clearly shows in his pictures won’t amount to anything. Less talented, less creative kids will succeed because they have a routine, they study, and they show discipline. And like always, you hear the c’mon, kid, do you know how special you are and see the kid looking blankly back, emotionally distracted as if in an altered state.
I was of two minds, thinking about how boring and dull the teenage boy became and also thinking about how I was at his age, and able to see the wonder of childhood suffocated by change.
I liked Boyhood and my wife kind of liked it. She appreciated Arquette’s fortitude as a mother and a woman choosing her own destiny in the face of great adversity. Two aspects of the film appealing to me: its unfiltered exploration of boy-ness and rich nostalgic air she did not connect with due to her gender and East African childhood. She noted a couple of universal family pieces but felt it was deeply steeped in Americana.
By not being a Hollywood cut-out with characters and their self-made arcs, Linklater allowed this brave group of actors to embark on a truly original and organic experience.
Boyhood is risky filmmaking. And it just about works.