When the term “ambition” is applied to a film, it is generally referred to a feature with a massive production budget, protracted running time and an abundance of digital special effects that transport viewers to an entirely new universe, guided by the singular vision of a filmmaker accustomed to the world of the blockbuster. Recent examples of these include “Avatar” and “Cloud Atlas,” both of which have been labeled as ambitious, but ultimately failed due to their inability to generate the necessary emotional connection with the audience to care about them in the first place. Along comes Richard Linklater and his new film, “Boyhood.” Massive in scope but intimate in execution, “Boyhood” is a unique coming of age story that follows the life of a child from the age of six to his first year in college. Instead of using different actors or extensive make-up to show on-screen maturation, Linklater and his crew have done the unthinkable: they actually filmed the entire project over 12 years of real time in order to present growing up in a realistic manner. It was a daring endeavor, but “Boyhood” pays off beautifully, destined to become known as one of the best efforts in American cinema.
Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is your typical all-American boy. He likes to do typical all-American things, like play video games, watch cartoons, and spend time with friends. He lives in Texas with his older sister Samantha (Linklater’s very own daughter Lorelei, in a giftedly natural performance) and single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a woman struggling to keep her family together and rebuild her own life through returning to school and remarriage to men who succumb under the influence of alcoholism. Occasionally he sees his father, Mason Sr., (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke), an immature adult who plays in a rock band with his stoner roommate and is quick to share his left wing beliefs. As the years progress Mason begins to develop his own identity, developing interests in photography and dealing with the woes of relationships while facing familial hardships and academic challenges, trying to figure out life as it happens.
Linklater has been making films for over twenty years, but the only work of his that comes close to this magnitude is his “Before” trilogy, which meets up with the same two characters every nine years to follow up on the status of their relationship. Stretching 39 days of actual filming over 12 years, Linklater never overplays the gimmick, maintaining his naturalistic and conversational style as a filmmaker without sacrificing his vision. It’s a highly commendable effort from the filmmaker, working with a project that allows him to re-edit and re-write it as the years pass without the entire thing falling apart. Transition between years is also done seamlessly, with Linklater eschewing any flashy editing techniques or on-screen text to notate years and ages, allowing the viewer to become fully immersed in Mason’s life without any filmmaker interference. Editing is also structured like that of memory, with scenes featuring the younger Mason played out in fragments, and as he grows older scenes grow longer, as if they were more fresh in his memory. We meet Mason at various times in his life, watching as he deals with bullies in school and the struggles of a part time job at a seafood restaurant, all while developing an interest in art as a photographer and finding young love of his own.
The film also works well as a pop culture time capsule. Music in particular plays an integral role to the picture, helping the audience identify the time period of a scene. The film opens with Coldplay’s “Yellow” playing over a shot of six year old Mason gazing at the sky, and then the next morning has his sister hitting him awake with a pillow before breaking into a song and dance routine of Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again.” Familiar tunes like Soulja Boy’s “Crank That,” Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Phoenix’s “1901,” The Foo Fighters’ “Let It Die,” Foster the People’s “Helena Beat” and Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” each have another moment in the spotlight, often played as ambient sound at bars and parties. The film ends with Family of the Year’s “Hero” as Mason ventures into a new chapter of his life, eagerly facing the unknown. As a young lad Mason enjoys being read the Harry Potter books by his mother, with one highlight of the film finding the children, in full costume, at a pre-release book party of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Will Ferrell’s viral hit “Pearl The Landlord” also makes an appearance, with Mason ironically finding solace from an alcoholic stepfather in a short video that features an alcoholic baby.
Also of merit is the arc of Mason Sr., a staunch liberal who tries to be the cool dad to impress his kids without any guidance in his own life, eventually settling down with a nice Christian woman and steady job. Scenes with him and Mason are the best parts of the picture, as Mason Sr. is the only positive influence and voice of encouragement in Mason’s life. The film is almost as much about parenthood as much as it is about boyhood, and Hawke is agreeably enthusiastic in the role, easily delivering one of the best performances of his career. He shares great chemistry with the children, and his passion for the project is evident in every scene he’s in. You end up wishing he was in it more (stretches of time pass without his involvement).
Things aren’t always smooth sailing in the feature. Olivia’s partners both eventually become alcoholic monsters, with scenes of domestic abuse and hostility are a little overcooked for my liking. There’s also a micro-subplot featuring a Hispanic gardener who, when given words of encouragement by Olivia, applies himself to go to school and get a degree towards a more stable career, popping up in the family’s life years later to say what an inspiration she was to his life. It’s more eye-rollingly obnoxious than it is inspiring, and could easily be excised from the film without any significant loss or consequence.
At one point in the film Mason, having just graduated from high school, asks Mason Sr. what the point of it all is. Mason Sr. replies that he doesn’t know and that nobody actually knows, but the point is that you’re feeling something and it’s important to embrace it while you’re young. It’s a brilliant moment that cleverly sums up the entire feature. The film is just like life itself: it may not be perfect or always have what you want, but it offers a genuine emotional connection through an ambitious effort that makes it all worth it. It’s a Richard Linklater film through and through, connecting to you in a very casual manner rather than forcing itself upon you.