by Hope Madden
With an effort that proves Richard Linklater to be indefinable as an artist even as it feels a natural evolution of his best work, Boyhood is a movie like no other.
Linklater filmed his low key opus over twelve years, pulling cast and crew back together for a few days each year to check back in on Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and their parents to see how things are hanging.
And that’s it. We participate in every year of Mason’s childhood, from Grade 1 to his freshman year in college. It’s not the big events, either, but the seemingly innocuous moments that, in sum, define a childhood.
Linklater’s genius has always been his generosity and patience with his cast and his mastery in observing the small event. Many of his films feel as if they are moving of their own accord and he’s simply there to capture it, letting the story unveil its own meaning and truth. The Before series offers obvious examples, but much of his work, from Slacker and Dazed and Confused onward, benefits from a casual observational style.
Never has he allowed this perception to define a film quite as entirely or as eloquently as he does in Boyhood. With the collaborative narrative Linklater sets a tone that is as close to reality as any film has managed. It’s both sweeping and precise, with Linklater’s deceptively loose structure strengthened by his near flawless editing and use of music to transition from one year to the next. He’s the surest bet so far for an Oscar in directing, and his film is the strongest contender yet for best picture.
For his cast, Linklater returned to regular contributor Ethan Hawke, whose performance as Mason’s somewhat flaky father marks the best work the actor’s ever done. Equally wonderful is Patricia Arquette with the meatier role of Mason’s mother, a loving if flawed matriarch. Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei also impresses and absolutely entertains as the boy’s sister.
Importantly, though our primary vehicle through this childhood is Mason, we come to truly know all these characters. None is given short shrift, and each is entirely fascinating in their own right.
But the film succeeds or fails with Coltrane, and Linklater owes a debt to the movie gods for this bit of casting. What a wonderful, fascinating, tender character the young actor carves out of this experience. With nary a false note, he carries us through the unforgettably familiar and authentic moments of insecurity, love, heartbreak, longing and confusion that mark childhood.
It’s a breathtakingly understated and authentic turn, perfect for the only film of its kind.