NOTE: This is an edited reprint of my review from the Sundance Film Festival.
Over the last twenty years we've grown accustomed to Richard Linklater's obsession with the passage of time through his Before Sunset trilogy. Every nine years we catch up on his cherished couple as they've gone from meeting to marriage and who knows where in the future. It's kind of strange to call Boyhood Linklater's latest film considering he began the ambitious project more than twelve years ago, filming it a few days each year to cover one boy's journey into adulthood. Nothing of its type has ever been attempted before, not even through Michael Apted's terrific Up documentary series. Combining hyper-realism with a fictional narrative, Linklater has created the purest of coming-of-age movies, but was the long wait truly worth it? Or was it all just one long, drawn out stunt without any real benefit?
Well, the answer is....somewhere in between. A middle of the road answer for a film that, while great at exploring how one's life evolves in big and small ways over the course of time, still manages to feel unfinished after such a long production and a 3-hour run time. It has nothing to do with the soundtrack, which Linklater admitted afterwards is still uncleared and may change when the final version is released. It has to do with the incompleteness in the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a Texas boy who is at 7 years old at the time we meet him. The film largely centers on him and his troubled upbringing in an affluent but broken home. Four central characters accompany Mason on this 12 year odyssey, growing and changing right alongside him: headstrong older sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater, Richard's daughter); his mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette); and estranged father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who flits in and out of the film playfully dropping pearls of Linklater-esque wisdom on philosophy, politics, music, and of course, women.
Contrary to the title, the film is as much about parenthood and the subtle effects parenting can have on children as they develop. Presenting in episodic fashion, flashing us through the years at what seems so be a rapid pace initially, the kids are dragged through Olivia's consistent relationship troubles. As she goes from one toxic boyfriend to the next, we see the impact of it on Mason and Lorelai, and how it informs who they become as adults. Their parents' initial separation seems tame compared to the volatile divorces she would have in the future with men consumed by alcohol and depression. After one particularly violent episode, we see how it emboldens the typically-quiet Mason to be more vocal to his mother when she starts to slip.
Captured in vivid images and told in Linklater's typically astute, observational style similar to his 'Before' movies (expect lots of walking and talking), perhaps the greatest achievement is how natural it all flows together given the fractured manner in which the film was constructed. Presented as snapshots of time and place, Linklater uses music and technology as cultural touchstones, and it's especially interesting to watch the different ways everybody communicates over the years.
While there is no true story arc for any one character, because life is an ever-evolving thing, every character undergoes dramatic changes far beyond the physical. With his long moppy head of hair and features that grow to resemble a young Ethan Hawke, Mason maintains a hopeful gleam in his eyes and an inquisitive nature inspired by his father. With a film of this length there are periods that sag and lack in depth. The second hour is particularly flat as Mason reaches his teenage years, a crucial time when most people are trying, failing, making hard decisions, trying and failing once again. Making mistakes is a part of life and a crucial part of a person's development, but we never see Mason actually do anything. A sense of true discovery is sorely missing in the construction of Mason as a man.
Linklater is a master of crafting large sagas on a small-scale, and Boyhood fits perfectly into his canon. Despite some narrative issues, there's no denying this sad, funny, and hopeful film is a technical and emotional achievement.