Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) has never known stability. His father (Ethan Hawke) is nowhere to be seen, an aimless wanderer, and his mother (Patricia Arquette) no less nomadic, moving him and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) to a new home every time one of her rebound relationships goes awry. Eventually, Mason Sr begins to take more of an interest in his children’s lives, picking them up at weekends and taking them on camping trips in the school holidays. Meanwhile, having become romantically involved with her lecturer, Olivia moves in with Bill (Marco Perella), who has a son and daughter of his own. As Mason Jr matures, he takes an interest in photography and works towards a college scholarship.
Shot over the course of twelve years and co-starring his own daughter, director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is about as personal as a film can get. What’s most amazing about the film, however, is that rather than feeling indulgent or exclusive it feels achingly familiar and has as a result been adopted by almost everyone who has seen it. It’s not the first time a child has grown up onscreen — many a child star has gone off the rails over the course of their filmographies, while Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint matured during a single 8-film franchise — but Linklater’s film is one of very few to genuinely capture what it feels like not only to grow up, but to watch someone transition from boy to man.
It’s still a lot to ask of any seven-year-old, and though Ellar Coltrane has to do little more than play himself in the early stages of the film he soon shows signs of genuine talent. As he navigates puberty and settles into his own skin it is hard not to feel a vicarious sense of paternal pride, whether you have children of your own or not. Whether it was prescience on the part of Linklater or simply blind luck, he has filled his cast out with actors who are as gifted as they are dedicated to the cause. Linklater’s daughter also shines in the role of Samantha, at first belting out Britney Spears songs as her brother tries to sleep and later blushing as her father elucidates her on the birds and the bees.
The parents are great too, with Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette changing almost as much as Ellar and Samantha over the course of the film — most years the latter’s hairstyles change more visibly than her children. At first flippant and irresponsible, Mason Sr slowly learns from his own mistakes until he is ready to become a father again, even if it’s to someone else. Olivia, meanwhile, is almost too eager to settle down, and finds herself trapped in a number of loveless relationships as she embarks on her own journey of self-discovery. Hawke gets many of the film’s best lines, but it’s Arquette who is responsible for the most emotional scenes. One in particular, in which she helps her son pack his things for college, is absolutely devastating. “I thought there would be more.”
Linklater’s directorial decisions don’t just mean that you get to watch a family evolve over time, however, but to see the world develop around them. Set between 2002 and 2013, the film acts as a time-capsule for the naughties. It references everything from Dragonball Z to Star Wars, Blink 182 to Soulja Boy, Gameboy to Nintendo Wii. It also covers the war on terror, McCain vs Obama and the midnight Harry Potter book launches. It’s a film that would be remarkable for its logistical feats alone, but which also offers characters that are almost unprecedentedly rich, a story that is endlessly relatable and a script that is as naturalistic as it is whip-smart.
Boyhood is an almost singular achievement in filmmaking, unlike anything that has come before and through its extremely personal nature unlike anything which will ever be. Linklater’s film isn’t one to enjoy, or admire or analyse, however, but one to love unconditionally — like one of your own.