by David Robinson, Movie Reviewer
When I was teaching, I cautioned my writing students against overusing the word “unique,” which means “one of a kind.” Since there are relatively few one-of-a-kind experiences, the term should appear only rarely in their or anybody’s writing. Having said that, I’m happy to report that “Boyhood” is, as far as I know, a unique movie, certainly unlike any film I have seen before. Happily, it’s also terrific, my favorite movie of the past year.
The brainchild of director/screenwriter Richard Linklater, “Boyhood” — available this week on DVD — follows the life of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 to 18.
Usually, a director will employ several actors to portray this growth; however, Linklater shot it in once-a-year bursts from 2002 to 2013, using the same actors for all the major parts. Thus, we literally see Mason age before our eyes, a narrative time lapse which is fascinating in its own right, like looking at a scrapbook that covers 11 years of one’s life, only with a coherent story line tying it all together.
The cast includes Ethan Hawke as his dad, Mason, Sr.; Patricia Arquette as his mother, Olivia; and Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, as Mason’s older sister, Samantha. As we watch, the family breaks apart, Olivia having had enough of her husband’s irresponsible ways and deciding to further her own education and launch her own career. Mason and Samantha endure two stepfathers, neither of whom loves them and treats them as does their dad, who travels hundreds of miles to spend time with them.
We see Mason go through the ordinary rites of passage from boyhood to young manhood, some of them exaggerated by the several relocations his mother makes. He gets bullied as the new kid, learns to adjust, tries beer and pot, works at a crummy job, gets and loses a girlfriend, graduates from high school, heads off to college. Along the way he has the usual sibling and parental disputes, discovers that he has a talent for photography, learns to heed the admonishment that he is responsible for his own life. He also frequently feels trapped or imprisoned, a theme that the movie clearly develops on its way to a final scene that subtly, superbly shows — in both his character and his environment — Mason tasting the first flush of freedom.
Coltrane grows as an actor, too, so much so that the adult actors around him occasionally look stiff, unnatural. By film’s end, he inhabits the role fully, Linklater adjusting the script to suit his young star. His parents age, thicken, mature along with him; his sister leads the way for him out of their home, the other three major actors becoming increasingly at ease and convincing in their roles.
The movie doesn’t offer much in the way of verbal profundity, other than his father’s telling Mason that, “We’re all just winging it.” Yet the film itself is profound, catching the sense of time’s slipping away from all of us, the way in which we meet obstacles, overcome them (or not), get educated and sometimes beaten up by change, which we only fitfully understand and control. In its insistent focus on the very ordinariness of its characters’ lives, it becomes extraordinary.
There have been similar cinematic attempts to capture time’s effect on a character or characters, real and fictional, over a stretch of years, but only Linklater has convinced a group of actors to commit to an 11-year project and have it pay off so handsomely. At the end of nearly three hours — the point where I am generally ready to complain that the movie is an hour too long — I was sad to see “Boyhood” end, as satisfactory as its resolution may be. The movie is rated “R” for language and for teen drug and alcohol use. If I had a 17 year old child — of either gender — my parental guidance would be to urge him or her to see this memorable, unique work of art, which may work better on the small screen, after all.