Everybody loved Boyhood, the unprecedented Richard Linklater epic that was shot over a 12-year period between 2002 and 2014. I knew everybody loved it, but until I saw it a few nights ago, I knew nothing else about it. I generally prefer knowing little about a film before I see it; I’d rather enter into it with as few pre-judgments and expectations as possible.
So: Linklater wrote and filmed Boyhood as the male lead – Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane – grew from a small boy to a 19-year-old kid. Mason and his older sister (Linklater’s real-life daughter) are the children of estranged parents played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. I’ve always loved Arquette. She’s a compelling actress with a specific appeal. Fuck it all to hell if she’s not the hottest thing in True Romance, Lost Highway, and even Flirting With Disaster, but there’s also something relatable about her. People are drawn to Arquette for different reasons that are hard to put into words. She’s almost the girl next door. You can project almost anything on to her.
Meanwhile, Ethan Hawke doesn’t seem to age at all. Not only did his haircut stay the same but, aside from a cheesy mustache that seemed to sprout sometime around 2011, his face did not change. His character, however, does. Mason Sr. is a perpetually jobless, aimless, dick-ish young dad with zero parenting skills and plenty of irreverence. Then, something happens to him more than halfway through the movie. He becomes a good guy. Suddenly he’s even sort of a good dad. We have no idea what led to this transformation because Linklater’s film jumps forward in time like skimming stones across a river. Maybe we’re just supposed to assume dad simply grew up and grew balls and decided to be a man. Or maybe something dramatic and life changing happened to him and woke him up. Who knows?
Minus a string of awfully uncomfortable scenes with a drunkard stepdad, it becomes clear that Boyhood is less about the big bangs in most coming-of-age stories as it is about the small moments and what happens in between.
That brings me to my final takeaway of the film. It’s a certain kind of treat and treasure to literally watch these kids grow up right before your eyes, and even to see the way Arquette changes over the years too, and in ways that are perfectly aligned with what’s going on in the film. The characters are wholly believable and the acting’s great, so hats off to Linklater and company. But my final analysis is one of a stunning minority: Ultimately, and somewhat disappointingly, the most interesting thing about Boyhood wasn’t the movie itself, but the ambitious idea behind it.