When I was a teenager, my parents and teachers would routinely tell me that I was not living up to my potential. I stood there, receiving a lecture and trying not to roll my eyes, until something clicked and their advice was well-taken. I had forgotten about those earnest adults until I watched Boyhood, the most ambitious film to date from Richard Linklater. Its scope is unlike anything we’ve seen in the movies before, and the premise creates an opportunity to tell a familiar coming-of-age story in an organic, sensitive way. Linklater uses broad strokes, with plenty of pop culture references that shift from nostalgic to modern. The trouble is that sometimes the story and hero are too broad, as if Linklater worries a defined personality would ruin the film’s universal appeal.
When we meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane), he’s a six year-old boy who lives with his single mother (Patricia Arquette). He passes the time by biking around the neighborhood, tagging walls with spray paint, and annoying his older sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). Mason’s dad (Ethan Hawke) is back in the picture after returning to Texas from Alaska, although he’s essentially a big kid, the sort of parent who’d rather have fun instead of responsibility. Mason’s mom wants a better life for her children, so she finishes college and remarries. Her taste in men is less than stellar – she marries her professor, who turns out to be abusive – and it takes a little while for her to find some stability. Meanwhile Mason jumps from school to school, and he’s equally confident and sullen once he reaches ninth grade.
The major difference between Boyhood and literally all movies before it is how Linklater filmed his actors. Instead of having two actors play old and young versions of Mason, Linklater would film his cast once a year, every year, for twelve years. In other words, Linklater had the patience to wait twelve years to finish Boyhood (the transitions from to year to year are sometimes abrupt, sometimes gentle, but always seamless). Each year in Mason’s life is episodic, usually focusing on one major event or party, with a greater emphasis on the later years since Mason at 16 has more control over his life than Mason at 8. By letting Coltrane and the other age naturally, Linklater demonstrates how time’s effect on growth (not just the literal kind). He strove for something similar with the Before Midnight trilogy, except in Boyhood we see every year over the course of two hours and forty minutes.
It’s an imperfect comparison, but if most films have the depth and scope of a short story, then Boyhood is similar to a novel. There are languid moments followed by bursts of activity, some of it disturbing, and the length invites the viewer to observe how Mason’s grows into control of his life. Like all young kids, he’s the byproduct of nurture and circumstance, a conservative insofar that any change to the status is met with disbelief and even heartbreak (Linklater, always a master of tone, finds a note of humor when young Mason looks in disbelief at his mother’s new boyfriend). Mason as a pre-teen is at his most likable and interesting: he’s smart and inquisitive, without any delusions of grandeur that come with adolescence. Unsurprisingly, Mason is an insufferable teenager, the sort of arrogant blowhard who talks about capital-S society as if he’s the only person who realizes it’s a sham. It’s a testament to Linklater’s craft and Coltrane’s acting that they’re unafraid to make him the butt of the joke.
While the passage of time is what makes Boyhood unique, it’s missing other essential components of a coming-of-age story. We learn virtually nothing about Mason, except for a few broad personality traits, as well his passion for photography and new experiences (e.g. booze, pot, and sex). In other words, the film is a triumph of immersion and a failure of storytelling. Mason has all the trappings of a modern American teenager, including the greasy hair and awkward mumbles, without any of the specifics. Linklater’s desire for the audience to identify with Mason robs him of a unique identity. Unlike Dazed and Confused, another Linklater film about adolescence, we do not get a sense of where he fits into the social hierarchy, or even what his preferences are. The role of music in Boyhood is an excellent example of this. Linklater’s soundtrack serves as a clock sorts – we start off with The Hives, then transition to Phoenix and Arcade Fire years later – and while the tunes add to the collage of Mason’s life, we never hear his iPod. Mason is not a character in the traditional sense; he’s an avatar so that the audience may fill in their own experiences. For a director whose style involves immersion through long takes and patient listening, the dearth of specificity can be maddening.
Linklater’s use of Mason as an avatar are the most apparent when he’s around boys his own age, or maybe a little older. There’s an odd scene where Mason goes to the bathroom and he’s bullied by two fellow students. They use the familiar rhetoric of intimidation (e.g. “You calling me a liar?”) then call him a “faggot,” but never hurt him physically. No doubt there’s a kernel of truth to this interaction, but since it exists in a vacuum, it has the emotional heft of an after-school special. The scenes with Mason and his teenage friends do not fare much better: they talk about sexual conquests in the crudest way possible, while sucking down beer and destroying property. Of course there are similar scenes in Dazed and Confused and The Spectacular Now, last year’s best coming-of-age film, but what distinguishes them from Boyhood are the details, both in terms of setting and character quirks.
The strongest parts in Boyhood, the ones with the most wisdom, are with Mason and his biological parents. The best scene in the film is when Mason, around age 12 or 13, goes on a camping trip with his father. Since Mason is between childhood and adolescence, he’s able to really converse with his father, and there’s a cadence to the dialogue that rings true (Mason’s father also imbues helpful advice that Mason stupidly ignores until long after high school is over). Hawke is pitch-perfect here as a parent that’s an amalgam of other roles he’s perfected with Linklater, and his character has a satisfying mini-arc that avoids the familiar route. Arquette’s character, on the other hand, never has the opportunity to be the fun parent, yet her performance combines tenderness, tough love, and vulnerability. It’s a cliché that we see her mistakes and not Hawke’s, but Linklater also shows how her parenting style evolves from exhausted nagging toward a desire for empathy.
The title Boyhood refers to more than just Mason’s coming of age. It refers to Mason’s father, who barely stumbles his way into adulthood. It refers to Mason’s adolescent entitlement; I cringed in my seat when he lectures his high school girlfriend about Linklater-ian paranoia, instead of actually conversing with her. In a way, the term refers to all of Linklater’s male characters, who constantly drift between fear and maturity, unaware of how they’re harming/influencing each other and the women in their lives. Boyhood finds a measure of hope for Mason since he begins and ends the film by looking skyward, with the audience unaware of what he’s thinking, his eyes full of hope and potential. No one is around to lecture him anymore, but since we never really learn who he is, it’s entirely possible those wise adults forgot what they saw in the first place.