I have to admit, I went into my first viewing of Richard Linklater’s latest film Boyhood with just the slightest hint of dread. If you haven’t heard by now, the movie was shot a little bit at a time over 12 years, which means we watch the actors age and evolve alongside the story. It’s just that I’d heard so much hype. One of my favorite filmmakers had made such a good movie. A game-changing movie. I was afraid I would be overwhelmed, or worse, that it would disappoint me.
I’m happy to report that Boyhood is every bit as profound and special as I hoped and feared it would be. It’s a period piece shot in real time, reflected in the soundtrack and haircuts. A movie can encompass years with trickery and makeup, but never before have we seen a plot of this scope rendered with so much heartbreaking authenticity.
The story begins with a 7-year-old boy named Mason and follows his life up until he goes away to college. Mason lives with his divorced mother (Patricia Arquette) and his slightly older sister, Samantha, played by Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei. You might remember her with the dreamcatcher at the beginning of Waking Life (2001). I read that Lorelei lost interest at some point during filming and wanted her character to be killed off, to which her dad probably said something like, “No, we’re not changing the entire arc and tone of my film to cater to your teenage whim.” I’m guessing.
Mason and Samantha have a cool, hip dad played by Ethan Hawke. He’s young and imperfect, but like everyone else, he’s doing the best he can. He picks them up and takes them bowling, and I found myself thinking for the first time of many, “This is my childhood.” But then, what child of divorce doesn’t remember that time our dad took us bowling? Viewers will find their own entryways of identification sprinkled throughout the story, because the film is, above all else, emotionally true. Linklater structures the script from a vignette of impressions and memories, the way certain events burn holes in our brain and how we weave a narrative of our past from those rememberings. Pay special attention to the shot of Mason poking at a dead bird behind his house. You remember doing that, right? Ogling boobs from a stolen bra catalog with your friends at a time when you barely comprehend what sex is, your mother lying dejected on the floor, your first beer, the way you felt when your parents savagely broke their promises—these are the moments.
Sometime in Mason’s pre-adolescence, his mother marries her college professor, a man who seems okay until you notice he’s always walking around with a mixed drink in his hand, barking orders at everybody. (Suffering your mother’s boyfriends: another pleasure particular to children of divorce.) Boyhood remembers what it’s like for a kid to see the fallibility of the people in charge of raising them, how nobody gives you credit for knowing and the helplessness that feeling brings.
The tone of the movie evolves as Mason takes on a new awareness of the world. He’s an artistic, sensitive kid who’s bright but maybe too nonconformist to fully thrive in a high school environment. He has conversations that remind me of the rambling characters from Linklater’s other Texas films about young people: Waking Life, Slacker, Suburbia. I can only assume much of his character mirrors Linklater’s own childhood experiences. (I remember fondly something I read Linklater say about why he quit college, simply: “It cut into my reading time.”)
The adult characters have their own growth to contend with. Suddenly we see that Mason’s mother has graduated and is teaching her own college class. Rarely does a movie make me cry from happiness, but sincerely, I was so proud of her. It could have been my own mother up there. The adults remember their own childhoods through the eyes of their children, and they’re eager to give advice. They want their kids to be better than they were, to learn from their mistakes, but in this need to instruct, the adults have forgotten that we all have to fumble through and make our own mistakes. Time has made them think a kid’s feelings are less real, when in fact they’re the realest.
Linklater is one of the best filmmakers we have. His work is imperfect and at times clumsy, but so entirely original and unpretentious that I don’t think it could be improved upon by a more skilled director. It takes a mind untethered from convention to even dream up an idea this crazy, and after that, boundless grit and courage to make it happen. This is one of the very best films.
Boyhood opens at the Wilma Fri., Aug. 15.