In an almost perfect moment near the halfway point in Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s epic of the everyday, a father gives his son a mix CD compiled solely of solo work by the members of the Beatles on his fifteenth birthday. It’s almost as if they never broke up, the father claims. As they drive along, George Harrison’s “What is Life” begins to play before fading into the next scene, and indeed it is this very question that Linklater’s posed throughout nearly his entire career.
While known for the occasional mainstream hit (School of Rock), most of his films have a freewheeling spirit, filled with characters governed not by a traditional arc but rather by questions: Why are we here? Is there a purpose to life? Do our actions really matter? That these queries are never answered is beside the point. Films like Waking Life, Dazed and Confused, Slacker, and the Before trilogy are perfectly content to engage in introspective speculation. Now comes Boyhood, perhaps the simplest yet conversely most radical film Linklater has ever made. The fact that it even exists is a minor miracle in and of itself. Even more miraculous is just how excellent the whole enterprise turned out to be.
But first, a beginning of sorts: the year is 2002, and we enter the life of a six-year old boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane). We aren’t told it’s 2002, but rather pick up on little cues, from the boy playing a Gameboy Advance (remember those?) to his dynamic and, quite honestly, bratty sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter) singing “Oops, I Did it Again” just to bug poor Mason. Throughout the course of the film, which concludes in 2013, we gradually become aware of the time period we are in not only by the boy’s gradual growth but by references to social and pop culture events, including the Iraq War, the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and the Presidential Elections of 2004 and 2008, among others. Were it made as a traditional period piece, these little details would feel overly calculated and self-conscious. Here, however, it feels as if the filmmaker and his cast and crew are trying to capture the present moment around them without sacrificing the integrity of the story.
For yes, indeed, there is a plot of sorts. Mason and Samantha are living with their divorced mother (Patricia Arquette) while their father (Ethan Hawke, absolutely wonderful here) visits them on a weekend every now and then. He’s vivacious, fun, and always trying to impart wisdom upon his children, despite the fact that he’s something of a deadbeat. When Mason, later at the age of 10, asks his father if he has a job, the man has almost no idea how to respond. Their mother, on the other hand, is a strong-willed woman attempting to earn her Master’s and become a teacher. The film chronicles not only the events of Mason’s childhood that shape him as a young adult, but also the slow transformation of his parents, both in the literal, objective sense and from his perspective.
An example: his mother strikes up a relationship with her professor, and she and her children move in with him and his kids. Things are initially fine, but the stepfather descends into alcoholism, first hiding it from his family, then openly exposing it in all of it’s ugliness. “Do you not like me, Mason?”, he asks drunkenly during a tense dinner. “It’s okay, I don’t like me much either.” While the film is filled with plenty of wit, this portion is surprisingly terrifying in it’s portrayal of an abusive household without devolving into tired tropes or cliche. Mason and his family ultimately flee, and while it’s never explicitly stated, it’s clear the experience has a profound impact on the boy. He becomes disillusioned with the father figures in his life, including his real father who slowly but surely compromises bit by bit from his hardcore liberal politics to marrying a kind woman whose parents give Mason a Holy Bible for his fifteenth birthday. “Life is fucking expensive”, he tells his son, part justification and part illumination of his fallible humanity. As Mason nears adulthood, he struggles with possibly losing his identity to a world where everyone is expected to fulfill certain obligations as parents, as lovers, as people, and still have no idea how to make sense of life.
There are also the scenes of Mason contending with puberty and romance. He hangs out with some older kids who will turn into sadder, more pathetic versions of Matthew McConaughey’s Wooderson in Dazed and Confused, is berated by yet another stepfather when he is found wearing nail polish (a girl in class did it to him as a lark more than anything, but the man of the house doesn’t abide by that), and even falls in love with a beautiful girl (Zoe Graham) he meets at a party. He confides in her that she’s the sort of person who he can share some of the emotional confusion in his life that he’s unable to articulate to others. You know the type of person, that first love in your life who you can completely be yourself with and whom you share something never quite felt before. Their relationship is not necessarily unique from any other young love, yet it doesn’t have to be. It’s blossoming and, yes, inevitable dissipation, are still powerful for Mason and for anyone who recalls the communion and ultimate loss of that moment in life.
This duality, the specificity and universality of Linklater’s coming-of-age story, is part of what makes it such a remarkable achievement. Linklater shot the film over the course of eleven years with his actors, crafting different vignettes for each age that we visit Mason. This isn’t a gimmick, but on the contrary the very essence of Boyhood. It’s a humbling vision of a human being gaining awareness, of those pivotal years in life that shape the foundation of our very selves without utilizing mawkish sentimentality. Is it a perfect film? Not quite. No film this ambitious ever is, and while the humor of the film is often naturalistic and observantly sharp, it sometimes runs the risk of turning some of the minor characters into caricature. But it’s assets vastly outweigh any slight flaws it may have. Above all, Boyhood is the type of film that can make you look at the way you’ve lived your life and consider how you want to spend the rest of it, and it makes you look at people and consider what events have shaped the course of their own stories. Great art has the potential to provoke contemplation of what precisely makes us human, regardless of whether we come to any resounding conclusions or not. By that token, Boyhood handily earns that honor.