Twelve years in the making, filming a few scenes each year to capture kids as they progress through life, Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is an amazing achievement in telling an unremarkably remarkable life story.
It’s a film of cultural touchstones and life’s mileposts, striking in their familiarity, narrow in execution. “Boyhood” is like a fictional feature film version of the dazzling “56 Up” documentaries about British schoolkids, with the singular focus on a boy who could well be Richard Linklater: The Next Generation.
The director of “Dazed and Confused” cast young Ellar Coltane at 6, making him his Mason Evans. Then he took Mason through a shy and curious childhood, his rebellious tweens, his quiet and considered teens and into a gregarious, smart and deep-thinking – Linklaterish – college freshman. We watch a daydreaming, sullen but creative kid, never good at sports, never comfortable with the various men in his mother’s life, bickering with his older sister (Lorelei Linklater), but somehow avoiding many of the pitfalls that a more melodramatic movie would have interjected.
So we see his first creative moments – graffiti on a rural Texas underpass – his first job, his first beer. We don’t see that first kiss, but we glance that first girlfriend, then meet the first serious girlfriend. There’s the camera that becomes his artistic outlet, the way siblings of a broken marriage become closer, for security, as years go by, a sullen kid learning to come out of his shell.
“Boyhood” is a limiting title, because this movie is life itself, with every character following a lifelong story arc. And as that story progresses, they age – naturally.
So Mason’s haggard single mom (Patricia Arquette) makes mistakes with men and strains to get her family into the middle class, going back to college as we first meet her. She gains wrinkles, gains weight, pulls herself together (poor people have poor diets) and grows into herself as she does.
Their oft-absent dad (Ethan Hawke) was the same age when they married, but is a musician, day laborer and chatterbox dreamer who takes years to grow up even as his vintage GTO starts to show its post-restoration wear.
Samantha morphs from a sneaky, brother-baiting big sister into a Mean Girl who towers over her brother in his most awkward years, to a less annoying, more world-wise college girl who understands him. She’s fascinating enough to warrant her own film.
And Mason grows from angel-faced boy through the Bieber-haircut years into a gangly version of “Twilight’s” Taylor Lautner, then a young man on the cusp of college.
He absorbs life lessons – musical tastes and liberal politics from his dad, compassion and seriousness from his mom. A martinet of a drunken stepdad, a well-intentioned photography teacher and a dorky first boss all ride him. Will the lectures pay off?
The “Dazed and Confused” casual drug use mixes with the “Slacker” questioning – “Is this all there is?” Working poor east Texas gives way to suburban San Marcos and hip and happening Austin.
The casting pays great rewards in the third act, as a 12-year-long screen acting lesson, sharing scenes with Arquette and Hawke, turns Coltrane from an unpolished child actor into a subtle, brooding heartthrob.
“Boyhood” is too bloody long, but it’s hard to think of good places to cut. Every campout scene and teens-riding-in-cars moment is at least interesting, and they all create the texture of the times and that stage in someone’s life.
And then it stops, just as Mason is getting interesting and we’re the most interested. Just like “Boyhood” itself.