Boyhood is an extraordinary film and an astonishing endeavour. Directed by Richard Linklater and filmed over a span of 12 years, it tracks the boyhood of six-year-old Mason from 2002 to 2014. The actor who plays Mason, the now-20-year old Ellar Coltrane, was cast at age six, just as the other actors in the film signed up for their roles 12 years ago. So, without a finalized script or clairvoyance (that we know of, at least), Linklater shot segments of the film annually for a 12-year period while the actors got on with their lives. Indeed, we even see elements of the actors' personal lives in the film itself.
Throughout the film, music, allusions and clothing are the markers that guide us through this 12-year span of time. Right at the start, Coldplay's Yellow indicates that the movie is set in the 2000s. Mason's trip to see The Chamber of Secrets in cinemas takes us up to 2002. Near the end of the film, Gotye's Somebody That I Used To Know transports us to 2011. Towards the end of the film, Facebook and iPhones become a part of the story.
The beginning of the film is set in Texas, where Mason lives with his older sister, Samantha (Lorelai Linklater), and his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette is fabulous). Mason's father, Mason Sr. (played by the amazing Ethan Hawke) and Olivia have separated, but Mason Sr. soon returns to Texas and begins to visit the children weekly.
From here onwards, the film touches upon all the chapters of boyhood: young Mason daydreams in class, is fed up with his annoying older sister, flips through lingerie magazines with childish curiosity, goes through an acne phase, gets himself a girlfriend, turns fifteen, graduates...and finally heads off to college.
The interim is interspersed with meaningful scenes that capture the relationships between father and son, son and mother, boyfriend and girlfriend, and so on. One of my favourite scenes is the one in which Mason. Sr. has the "birds and the bees talk" with his children - it is as awkward for them as it is for him and nothing about that scene seems falsified in any way. Another memorable scene takes place when Mason. Sr. drives his children to a park on one of his weekend visits. Here, we see his attempts to be a good dad: he asks his children how their week was, wanting to get to the heart of the question and refusing to be "that guy," refusing to be the stereotypical dad-who-visits-every-weekend in the divorce. So, what is lovely about the father-son dynamic in this film is the way Mason Sr. - although initially lost and with a drinking problem - cleans himself up and forms a meaningful bond with his children. The most moving instances of this are the scenes in which Mason and his father go hiking, and when Mason. Sr. confronts his son after his break up.
Speaking of father-son relationships, it is important to consider the men in the film because this is, after all, a movie about boyhood. Mason's father is wonderful, but he is not immune to placing expectations on his son. When he takes Mason out bowling, for instance, he insists that Mason forgo the bumpers (through another lens, this could be seen as Mason Sr.'s way of teaching his son perseverance). When Mason and Samantha show him dry Canadian grass and basketball team photos, respectively, it is the latter that grabs his attention. As Mason ascends to the eighth grade, his perceptions of manhood are further influenced by the seniors he meets. Spouting out profanity and challenging "are you gay," these seniors capture the stereotypical immaturity and self-consciousness of teenage boys.
Yet none of this is too troubling, unlike the disturbing "mansplaining" attitude of Professor Bill, Olivia's second husband. He demands Mason to cut his hair, saying that he will now "look like a man instead of a little girl." He orders his own children to do their chores rigorously. He dictates the way his son plays golf. Worst of all, he is tyrannical and abusive - what kind of boyhood will his son experience?
So, as much as the film is about boyhood, it is also about parenthood. Early on, Olivia exclaims, "I'm a parent, that means responsibility." Indeed, she does an astounding job at being a mother - having to face her daughter's "horsesh-t attitude," pulling her family out of poverty and raising Mason and Samantha until they graduate. She uses the tiger as an example to explain love during one of her classes, saying that mother tigers abandon their cubs and "throw them down" in the face of danger. For her, however, the opposite is true; she is the one who clings onto her children despite all danger and strife. Her motherly instinct is further strengthened at the end of the film, when the family runs into Ernesto, the man who had fixed their sewer pipes years ago. Now one of the managers of the restaurant they dine at, Ernesto credits Olivia for inspiring him to learn English and find his current. "[Olivia] is a smart woman," he tells Mason and Samantha. "You should listen to her."Yet the day Mason leaves for college, Olivia breaks down, crying, "I just thought there would be more." Although the audience will inevitably get caught up in the journey of Mason's boyhood, we must not forget that it is his mother - not his father, stepfathers or peers - who does the best and most wholesome job of raising him.
Speaking about the film's ending, the whole film retains its structural integrity. For instance, it opens with the family moving and ends with another instance of moving, but it is only Mason that moves the second time round - into adulthood. Similarly, we can draw a clear link between Mason's childhood love for staring out of the window to his eventual passion for photography. Even Jimmy, the friend of his father whom Mason met when he was still young, reappears at the end as if to reinforce the length of time that has elapsed since.
So, it is fitting that Mason says to Nicole, one of the first girls he meets at college, that the young kids she tutors "haven't reached the awkward years yet."He, after all, has just gone through those awkward years - and what a journey they have been!
The fact that Linklater actually tracked his characters for 12 years contributes to the most striking element of this film: its realism. Yet he also achieves this because the dialogue in the film is so spot-on that it ceases to seem like scripted material. Indeed, I saw myself reflected in the way Sheena, Mason's ex-girlfriend, chats with Samantha. The awkward laugh, the tucking of the hair behind her ear...I mean, I do that too!
At the same time, Boyhood - for all its realism - cannot be considered a faithful representation of "boyhood," although it may come close to capturing an idealized American boyhood (hence Mason's baseball games, a shotgun for his 15th birthday, a graduation party). Where was Mason's real teenage angst and where were his wild adolescent years of rebellion? Boyhood, striking as it is, deals with certain troubles of boyhood in some parts - but lacks to address some others.
Nonetheless, the final line of the film pithily captures its essence: "It's constant, the moments, it's just — it's like it's always right now, you know?" Linklater, after all, filmed Boyhood in the "right now" moments. He has translated a coming-of-age story onto screen in a way that allows the audience to vicariously experience - and truly witness - the passage of time through film. Boyhood is a work of incredible scope that is, despite its flaws, the most important contribution to cinema in a long while.