There have been plenty of movies about children and especially adolescents. The French classic “The 400 Blows,” “E.T.” and “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” come to mind immediately. But no one has ever attempted to follow the entire arc of childhood from first grade through high school, as writer-director Richard Linklater has in his latest film, “Boyhood.”
Linklater has been one of our most audacious independent directors for nearly a quarter-century, ever since he made a splash in 1990 by crafting a surreal portrait of life in Austin, Texas in “Slacker.” While he’s made occasional mainstream hits like “School of Rock,” Linklater has earned his greatest acclaim (and a pair of Oscar nominations for Best Original Screenplay, shared with Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) for his “Before Sunrise” trilogy of films, following the evolution of a relationship through updated stories every nine years.
The games he plays with real time in “Boyhood” are even more fascinating. Linklater opted to hire one boy actor — an utter unknown named Ellar Coltrane — and follow him for the full 12 years, rather than hiring different actors at different stages of the boy’s life. Then, he proceeded to gather his core cast (including Hawke as the boy’s father, and Patricia Arquette as his mother) for two weeks each year to film the new footage that fit each year of the boy’s life.
The story follows a boy named Mason (Coltrane) from age 6 to 18, living mostly with his mom (Arquette) and his older sister (Lorelai Linklater) after his mom and dad (Hawke) are divorced. While he doesn’t see his dad for large chunks of time early in his life, his father is shown to be a loving and concerned man who is also maturing throughout the years.
Mason and his sister and mother are shown moving across Texas to new homes and through two step-fathers. Along the way, he deals with new schools, first loves, good and bad times including having to flee an abusive alcoholic stepdad. He becomes a sensitive photographer and is shown smoking a joint, drinking underage and eventually losing his virginity.
These are all epochal moments in any boy’s life, but they don’t make for compelling viewing to outsiders — especially not when it comes to the extremely laid-back approach Linklater takes with the material. Mason is shown as an essentially nice and kind boy and overall is a respectful and caring son, but that doesn’t create enough conflict to be interesting or entertaining. The movie could use a traditional, main narrative storyline rather than being a series of anecdotal episodes from his life.
Along the way there's not too much profanity, enough to earn an R rating but not to feel overwhelming. As mentioned, we also see the boy smoke a joint in a couple of scenes and nonchalantly smirk off his mother's concern about it, and he also is seen engaging in underage drinking in a couple of scenes. And while Linklater doesn't actually show the sex scene between the boy and his girlfriend as he loses his virginity, he nonetheless sets up the ruse they employ to hide from everyone in a non-judging way and makes it seem totally casual and normal the following morning as they are woken up under the sheets by the friend whose college dorm room they are using.
The result is that the movie does not hold much emotional impact for viewers, even as it accomplishes its daring and impressive feat of using the same actor for 12 years as he grows up. Anything could have gone wrong in that time, with cast members potentially getting sick or dying or the boy proving to be a bad actor as he got older. But the movie manages to succeed on the level of its central idea, even though its weak narrative structure makes the idea feel like a gimmick.
As such, “Boyhood” is much like any average boyhood; a fairly pointless exercise that leaves you impatiently waiting for thrills that never come, and which you can’t wait to be over so you can get on with the good stuff in life.