Summer is the time when Hollywood pulls out every trick in its bag to get people to come to the theater. Mostly this strategy revolves around the idea of spectacle: put an experience on the screen that people cannot replicate at home, and they will be drawn to see it on the big screen. We usually associate spectacle with big visual effects—explosions, escapes, and the toppling of buildings. After all, if you are not seeing dinosaur robots firing missiles at each other in IMAX 3-D, what is the point? This summer, however, the most spectacular film in multiplexes—the one most essential to see writ large on the big screen—has no breathtaking special effects, and not one single explosion. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an epic of the everyday, a film whose bigness derives from its very focus on the small things that make up much of our lives.
Like many great spectacles, Boyhood pushes at the edges of what film can do. Much of the build-up to the film’s release has focused, understandably, on the production cycle: Linklater filmed Boyhood in bits and pieces over the course of 12 years, so as to allow star Ellar Coltrane to actually grow up from a boy of six to an adult. Bypassing the awkwardness that inevitably comes from casting different actors in the same role, Linklater has captured a stunning picture of growing up. The audience watches Coltrane morph before their eyes, physically and emotionally, over the course of two and a half hours.
What is really amazing about Boyhood, however, is how little this central conceit feels like a gimmick. Linklater treats this real-time aging as a method to tell a better story, not a draw in and of itself. And what a story it is. Boyhood attempts to capture, in microcosm, what it means to grow up as a boy in contemporary America. Coltrane plays Mason, an everyboy from Texas. When the film starts, Mason is six; his mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) have already divorced, leaving Mason and his older sister (Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter) in the hands of a struggling single mother. The film checks back in with Mason through the years, as he experiences the full range of normal events that seem so momentous in the life of a child. His family moves, and moves again. Both his father and mother remarry. He makes and loses friends, suffers through school, and begins to develop an identity. He falls in love, then has his heart broken.
Laying out the plot like this makes Boyhood sound a bit like a checklist, a greatest hits of childhood, but it almost never plays that way on the screen. The film keys in on Mason’s perspective, giving each event a taste of the wide-eyed wonder that a child experiences. Despite its long running time, and the sheer number of things the film must pack in, it does not feel overstuffed. Only one plot element swings and misses: Mason’s mom goes through several troubled relationships with abusive men, which feel too melodramatic for the film’s otherwise even-keeled tone. But even this misfire pays thematic dividends, as both Mason and his mother develop as characters in response to the harsh men in their world. (And abusive men, after all, are figures in the “ordinary” lives of all too many women.)
The performances in Boyhood go a long way in fleshing out characters that, in the wrong hands, might play like caricatures. Arquette brings a quiet resolve to her role as a woman forced to rely on herself. As Mason’s mom changes over the course of the film, becoming increasingly self-confident, she blossoms visibly, till by the end she is a pillar of strength. Ethan Hawke is equally good as the dad. At the beginning he flits in and out of his children’s lives, appearing at random to treat them to special trips in his muscle car. He is the ultimate cool dad, charming and fun but unable to contribute in meaningful ways to the task of raising his kids. Life happens to him as well, though, and over time he grows up alongside his son, trading the muscle car for a minivan and rootless wandering for a life with a new wife and young child. Hawke captures the bemused turmoil of the dad’s slow maturation; perplexed by his loss of freedom (and coolness), he nonetheless embraces the hard joys that come with responsibility and sacrifice.
The real revelation, though, is Coltrane, on whose growing shoulders the movie rests. Casting a six-year-old in a role that will last through puberty is a risky move, but it pays dividends here. What makes Coltrane’s performance convincing is its fluidity; as he grows from an observant boy to an artsy teen, he keeps the essence of his character in a way that feels totally unlike acting. In fact, it has the authenticity of life; Coltrane inhabits his role so fully that we could be watching his own life unfold.