Richard Linklater’s 12-years-in-the-making experiment Boyhood turns out to be marvelous entertainment, intrinsically everyday yet extremely compelling, and breezing through its nearly three-hour running time without any truly unwatchably dull scenes. Boyhood has topped more end-of-the-year best-of lists than just about any other movie in 2014, and, happily, it’s worthy of all the praise people are giving it.
That Richard Linklater could successfully assemble a cast—including a seven-year-old boy (played by Ellar Coltrane) and keep them all coming back each year for more filming, is a testament not only to his talent as a director but also to his vision for a film that presumably morphed a lot during its 12-year-long process. The film traces the life of Mason Evans, Jr. and his family throughout the course of Mason’s childhood and adolescence, culminating in his departure for college. The parents, Mason, Sr. and Olivia (played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) and the older sister, Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the director) are at times much more interesting than Mason, who sometimes embodies too perfectly a 21st century entitled American teenager. (He grows his hair long and starts taking pictures; he’s full of questions; it’s sometimes disgustingly like looking into a mirror, and then realizing life would sometimes be better if you just stopped blathering so much.) At times, he grated on my nerves with his mumbly, grouchy self-centeredness. And the only people who criticized this were his mom’s succession of alcoholic husbands, with whom I don’t relish sharing any common ground.
But Boyhood is good enough that it survives the sometimes irritating attitude of its main character, particularly because it takes such a vital, honest look at normal people. By no means do the film’s four central characters represent all of America in the early 2000s. But they do represent four Americans in the early 2000s, and as such they may one day become historical artifacts. The movie won’t teach future generations important history lessons (which would be so very dull), but it may remind future generations that we are all very much alike, no matter how much time separates us.
I always love learning about the Victorians and how crazy—and similar to people living now—they were. Their technology was less advanced in a lot of ways, but they were truly a lot like us and their values still shape the world of Western culture and thought and politics. The things that scared them, scare us. They were obsessed with purity but secretly naughty, they were simultaneously reaching back toward a more religious tradition and reaching forward toward rationality rooted in scientific research. (Some of their science was, of course, pretty amazingly bad, such as their fascination with phrenology, or the study of the shapes of people’s skulls as an indicator of their morality and intelligence and ultimate worth as human beings.) But my point is, realizing the common humanity shared with people from generations before is strangely freeing. It connects us to the past and the future, and that is the value that I believe Boyhood will have in the years to come.
What keeps Boyhood from being a dull, self-important movie experiment is the fact that Richard Linklater isn’t obsessively drunk on his own idea. He made other movies between then and now, so he wasn’t completely focused on this one project. Moreover, Linklater allowed the actors to draw from their own personal lives and pour that experience into their characters, letting them evolve with each successive year. As a result, these characters emerge richer than they would have been if every scene had been worked out at the film’s inception.
The saddest part of the film comes at the end, when Patricia Arquette, as the single mom who struggled to put herself through college so she could build a better life for her two young children, cries out to her son: “I thought there would be more.” It’s heartbreaking, and one of the most honest things that’s been said in a movie this year. Boyhood doesn’t undermine the importance of having a family; it’s not cynical about normal life, just truthful. People work hard and then their lives pass them by and they look back and think, “Was it all worth it?” Kids grow up and seem eager to fly out of the nest, and in some deep part of a parent, it must be intensely painful. It’s like something Alec Baldwin’s character said in an episode of 30 Rock: “Being a parent is like wearing your heart outside of your body.”
Do I wish for a Girlhood? Absolutely. Boyhood does have strong female characters, and in many ways, it’s not ultimately about Mason Evans or even boyhood in general. It’s about the ordinariness of life. How Richard Linklater managed to make that subject as fascinating and fresh as he did is a wonder.