"How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?" the famed ballad from the musical Rent poses to the viewer. In the 525,600 minutes that make up each passing year, hopefully it is the love that remains standing above all, for of how much importance really is the rest of it?
What writer/director Richard Linklater has accomplished in his masterwork Boyhood is nothing short of amazing. It goes beyond a simple experiment to see someone growing up on film year after year, and it really reaches deep into the meaning of who we are as people, searching for meaning in our lives, and wondering as the years pass by where the time goes and what the purpose, if any, of it all is.
The cinematic journey through one boy's life begins by greeting its audience when its protagonist, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is six years old. His mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is having an argument with a man who's not Mason's father, and right away there is a tonal setup to the movie about how these people's lives will be presented. It is very matter of fact, and due to the style of the filming process having taken place over the span of 13 years, there is an ability to present a certain realness that often can be lacking in movies that purport to present time-lapsed stories.
Suspension of disbelief comes entirely naturally to the viewer because essentially, one is watching lives play out onscreen—with enormous time gaps, obviously—but with a sense that nothing left out is actually done so in a way that would misrepresent the truth of what is being told. Year to year, everyone in the story ages, not by means of makeup or false alterations and clever camera tricks, but through the actual wear and tear of day in and day out living. And these people are not ones leading necessarily extraordinary or extreme lives, yet in their ordinary trials and tribulations, (wrought with certain hardships quite easy to relate to, if not exactly what one may have gone through), they are profoundly exposing a very real insight into the human condition. It's beautiful and wonderful and tragic and careful and careless and scary and happy and despondent and reluctant and neglectful and forgiving and prideful and thoughtful and caring and mistaken and morose and a whole other host of actions, emotions, ideas, and realities that span the gamut of the human experience—yet all of this is very contained and not at all overwhelming, as Linklater's simple style, combined with subtle acting (particularly on the behalf of the brilliant Arquette, who gives what absolutely ought to be an Oscar-nominated performance), make for one motion picture that accomplishes nothing short of magic.
What Patricia Arquette achieves in this performance is really something of a rarity among actors and actresses. Perhaps in part, she had some kind of advantage, having been able to think about the character she's playing, year after year, and bring a sort of deeply discovered nuance to her acting; as the rest of her life and acting experience went on around her, this character continued to exist, and so she really was able to hone in on the truth of what the character presented to her. But whether it was that, or simply the combination of Linklater's writing/directing and her own innate skill, the very core of the whole movie rests in her talented hands. The story is so named because it is about a boy going through the formative years of his life and becoming the man he will be throughout the whole of it. But perhaps more aptly the undertones of what lies behind Mason's growth into adulthood is what could have possibly named the film "Motherhood," as it is Arquette as his mother who really is the heart and soul of the film.
A mother, any mother, plays such an instrumental role in the lives of her children for whom she is present in raising. When she is the predominant caretaker to children—such as in the case of this family, where Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is often absent throughout vast pockets of time during several years, and the string of men parading through her life and the lives of her children is a list of what could not by any means be deemed award-worthy husband material—there is a weight placed upon her shoulders, which becomes more fully realized in the context of things ending. Perspective gained at the time of a child's birth or his entering school or her garnering some serious injury or his graduating high school or her getting married, this is a lesson and an emotional undertaking on top of being a mere corporeal reality. A loving parent experiences these things and changes his/her perspective on life, perception of the surrounding world, and his/her reaction to all of it in order to survive and thrive under all the upheaval brought on by a naturally ever-shifting life. Olivia, being the predominant parent in Mason Jr.'s life, and the life of his sister, Samantha, (Lorelei Linklater, the director's real life daughter), is the one taking on this emotional heft, this "burden" so to speak; in the most fantastically grounded manner, Arquette represents this reality with complete veracity and artistic aplomb, and not merely (albeit wonderfully) because of one incredible scene, but the slow burning performance throughout the film that leads to it, it is truly something to behold.
Having worked together many times over the years in the series of movies tracking a romantic relationship—Before Sunset, Before Sunrise, Before Midnight—Linklater and Ethan Hawke have an obvious rapport that spans decades. Also, it helps that there is absolutely no trouble believing that Hawke is these children's father, both in looks and mannerisms. One can imagine that it took very little directing to instruct Hawke on what kind of father he was to represent in the film, as he very naturally fulfills the role of one who is caught between wanting to do right by his children and never really desiring to give up enough of himself in order to live out the selfless aspect that needs to coincide with good parenting.
He is not a bad man, unlike some of Olivia's men whom she meets, marries, and divorces throughout the years, like the alcoholic professor she courts while attending graduate school, Bill Welbrock (Marco Parella), or her student Jim (Brad Hawkins) a few years later, both leading her cascading into a trend of reflecting that as a whole, human beings accept the love they think they deserve.
But Mason Sr. is a dad who could generally try harder at being there for his kids. Olivia rightfully resents the way that he swoops in and out of their lives, often bringing gifts or only doing fun activities when he's around, misrepresenting the real level of abandonment that he has enacted, both with her and with them. Their fighting wears on the children, and their separation causes obvious and expected discord. But again, that's not to say he is a bad person or does not try to be better, particularly in later years. Nor does he neglect to realize the effects his absence has had on their lives. There are very touching, bonding moments between Mason Jr. and Sr., particularly after Jr. has undergone his first real heartbreak, that demonstrate paternal love in a steadfast, if unremarkable manner.
In pointing out any of these mere moments or somewhat sweeping generalities, there is a trivializing of what the movie is able to represent. None of the characters are any one thing, just as in life, no person is one-dimensional. There is a very concerted effort on the behalf of Linklater and all persons involved in telling Mason Jr.'s story, to really get to the heart of what makes us human, and given the final product of the film, this effort is nothing that has been forced, but rather has led to something having been gained from very nuanced observation combined with selected aspects of adroit storytelling. The result is a beautifully painted canvas of the story of a life, which feels neither overly like a documentary nor like a fiction with any level of forced verisimilitude. The truth underneath the story bursts eminently outward, like the joyous, inevitable blossoming of a butterfly from its cocoon.
And what of the young star at the center of it all? Linklater did luck out, in many ways, that Ellar Coltrane did not turn out to be a total dud. The film could have taken an unfortunate turn really at any point during the many-year process, if Coltrane had suddenly up and decided that he really didn't want to embody Mason anymore, or if he did not have any inclination towards make believe. Although he is not the most gifted actor on the planet, and one could only wonder where the story could have gone with someone like an Elle Fanning (I can see it now...Girlhood! Go back in time, Linklater, and make another movie simultaneously and let's compare!), Coltrane's attributes and general willingness to simply be who he is (or by the genuine nature of what is portrayed, one can only suspect that he is doing as much) does make for a not at all distracting look into this boy's life. Coltrane, particularly in the earlier years, displays an earnest, unfeigned, unfettered sincerity that really cuts away the pretension of certain given moments, and he is able to make the audience really feel what he is feeling or comprehend what he may be thinking. He is a vessel for Mason's story in a way that one can only be sure Linklater had wanted, and it is a treat to see him deliver the truth of this character.
At a certain point throughout the years, it does seem slightly apparent that the filming process began to wear on Lorelei Linklater. Perhaps being the director's daughter made the whole prospect of a seemingly endless process that much less exciting. But she too does contribute well to the story being told, and it seems that her distaste only lasted for a brief interval during the teen years—but then, what teenage girl (or boy) isn't fed up with some aspect about her (or his) parents? 'Tis a cruel reality of the human race, having to go through those years, but one simply no one can avoid.
Overall, Boyhood is something of a crowning achievement for Linklater. In his other work, it is apparent that he has keen insight into what makes people tick. He is very intrigued by the humanity he observes around around him, and he portrays it superbly. Perhaps nowhere more fully is this apparent than within the construct of this beautiful film. In summing up a life, this visual exploration is truly one not to be missed.