Such a joyous feeling enveloped me as I watched and experienced Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” It’s rare to view a narrative film and feel you’ve been a part of the filmmaking experience and yet, viewers will feel they know young Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), his mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and his dad, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke). After all they’ve watched Mason and his family grow and change via dipping into scenes of their lives during a twelve-year span. It’s hard not to think back on one’s own experiences and cultural references over that same time frame.
It’s groundbreaking to shoot a narrative film that meets up with its cast once a year for twelve years to film moments of their fictional life and conversely watch all the characters, especially Mason, and his sister Samantha grow up before our eyes. Michael Apted directed his acclaimed “7 Up” series of documentaries in England, which visited a group of schoolchildren from all walks of life every seven years (the series is up to "56 Up"). But an American narrative? No others come to mind.
Thus, it is no wonder the film is receiving such critical acclaim and as of this writing, has scored 100% on Rotten Tomatoes. Equally impressive is that the Los Angeles screenings this weekend at the Landmark Theatre and ArcLight Cinemas where Hawke and Arquette are doing Q&A’s after the showings have already sold out. Interest is rightly high.
No stranger to visiting characters whose lives changed over time, Linklater created an art house triumph with his trilogy, “Before Sunrise,” (1995) “Before Sunset,” (2004) and “Before Midnight” (2013), which followed the ups and downs of love of American Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and French Celine (Julie Delpy) three separate times over an 18-year period. However the “Boyhood” cast was asked for a more intense commitment by filming three, four-day shoots each year for twelve years. One had to have strong faith in a project that shoots over twelve years. Yet each cast member leapt at the chance. Even more astounding was finding a studio to make a promise to shell out money for production of a film that wouldn’t be released for twelve years. (Bravo, IFC films.)
Knowing that his actors and the cultural backdrop would change in front of the camera lens over the years, Linklater chose to keep the film’s look unified and decided to shoot the film in 35mm, per the movie’s production notes. This choice turned to be more of a risk than expected since by the end of the shooting period, film production turned more to digital formats. But the decision pays off.
The storyline on paper is simple, but the nuances complex – Mason, a grade-schooler is a bit of a dreamer in class, while his older sister Samantha, an A-student is focused and maybe a little too smart for her own good. Their mother, Olivia, announces that they are moving to Houston to be nearer her mother who can help with childcare, since their father, Mason Sr., has taken off to Alaska, to work? To grow up? It’s unclear to Olivia.
But Mason Sr. soon comes back into the picture. A wannabe musician, Mason Sr. wants to be part of his kids’ lives and invests himself in their weekend and summer visits. Meanwhile, Olivia is trying also to make something of herself, going back to college, becoming a professor and finding a man who might have the right mix of love and fathering skills for her kids (her choices aren’t great).
It’s against this backdrop that we see Mason find his way through school and life, and through love and responsibility, and eventually grow from boyhood to adulthood.
It’s a wondrous journey for all.