“Boyhood”: One of the Decade’s Most Quietly Ambitious Films

The result is an astonishing facsimile of real life remembered, always going by too fast in retrospect. Linklater (who wrote the screenplay, developing it with input from his cast) taps into the universality of growing older but not feeling any wiser about why we (singular and plural) are on this planet, even as he sticks to the specific experiences of one middle-class white American family in his home-state of Texas.

As indicated by the title, Boyhood focuses on the son, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but like in real memories, the important ‘supporting characters’ in the story of his life are as well-developed as he is. By dint of familial bonds, this is also the story of his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, who’s as strong a presence as Coltrane in the film), his often single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette, heartbreakingly good), and his mostly absentee father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke, using the persona he developed over the Before movies to great effect). The core cast is uniformly excellent, allowing the real weight of the years to seep into their performances without betraying what’s come before. While Coltrane provides a strong focal point with his surprisingly unaffected performance as the quiet, thoughtful Mason–who might well be an alternate version of ‘himself’–each of the members of his family also develop and change with him.

The experience of watching Boyhood comesclose to vicariously experiencing real lives, say, via photo albums or home video. There’s a wistful intimacy to those two mediums that can’t precisely be replicated in fiction, but Boyhood does exactly that through its verisimilitude. Since we know the actors are actually experiencing life at the same rate as their characters, each moment where one of them opines about our inability to come to terms with age and disillusionment feels earned. It’s frank and unsentimental, never lingering too long on any one moment or event in Mason’s life. Linklater often leaves out key milestones (like Mason’s first kiss, or the loss of his virginity), putting his trust in the power of the film’s naturalism. Milestones that we do see, like Mason leaving his mother’s home for college, land hard. More than anything, Boyhood feels resoundingly true.