A young boy, no older than 10 or 11, is sucking on a Redskins lolly bar and sitting on tanbark underneath the monkey bars in a small public park. He’s hanging out with three boys older than him — they’re only 14 and 15, but at that age the difference feels like decades — and they’re chewing the fat, talking about TV shows and video games.
The young boy is attempting to impress them, trying to fit in with the cool kids. A group of girls arrive. One of them waves and the girls sit down next to a slide. The ringleader asks the kid sucking on the Redskins: wanna come play spin the bottle?
Sure, the kid says. But when the boys move closer to the girls the kid wimps out. He makes an excuse and walks home. With his hands in his pockets, kicking an acorn down the footpath, he doesn’t feel very cool anymore.
A few years pass. When the same game is suggested by a different crowd, and the kid is a little bit older, he’s ready to play — and he’s keen as punch.
That moment isn’t a scene from writer/director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an ambitious and beautifully realised drama shot with the same cast over 12 years. That kid was me. The movie was my life.
Those moments — the Redskins, the slide, the girls, the acorn — had no obvious psychological impact on me, in fact they disappeared from my mind entirely. It was only when I was watching Boyhood they returned. It felt like the kind of recognition you feel when you discover an old photograph tucked away in a shoebox.
Linklater plays with the audience’s comprehension of time. As the characters age so does the film, and in an oddly literal way given he sat on footage for over a decade. And given Boyhood’s coming of age subject matter, there’s plenty of logical reasons to explain why the film jogged my memory. But it also speaks to how special this deeply memorable movie is, and the great sensation at the heart of it: the sense audiences may not only share something with it but also feel a claim of ownership.
Boyhood follows the life of Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a bright-eyed tyke into a drug dabbling university student. His estranged parents are played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. The film flows like a non-documentary version of 7Up, without the stop/start time jumps. Rolled into a long but smooth 165-minute running time, the characters age in subtle ways — no thick smears of make-up, no numbers announcing a different year.
Boyhood is many things: mainstream but experimental, subtle but powerful, epic but personal. Ultimately it is a rites of passage story. Some of these rites are distinctly American, like eating at diners, Yankee-style graduation celebrations and the handing down of a family rifle that’s been in the family for generations.
Most, however, are universal. If first loves, break ups, working a menial job for a crappy pay, squabbling with siblings and arguing with parents sounds familiar, that’s kind of the point. We’ve all been there, yet Linklater and his outstanding cast — including the young man at the heart of it, Ellar Coltrane, who audiences will bond with unlike with any other actor –make that familiarity feel fresh and interesting.
When Ethan Hawke reconnects with his kids (Mason and his sister Samantha, played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater) and takes them to a bowling alley, he loses his tempter for frivolous reasons.
“You don’t want bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers!” dad exclaims, imploring the kids not to play the kiddie version of bowling. It’s a moment of dumb intemperance, but it also hints at some of Boyhood core themes: that growing up is an imperfect science and it cannot be rushed.
Hawke’s character casually refers to that moment later — “I’ll get better at the bumpers thing” — making a point that Boyhood isn’t a story about one person growing up. Linklater’s direction is too emotionally intelligent for such a singular focus, too generous with its feelings. Boyhood studies all the primary characters as they evolve and mature.
This heartwarming and complexly layered drama isn’t just one of the best films of the year, but one of the best of the decade, the kind of deeply touching experience that feels like a one-off. Something that can be imitated but never really comes again.
Boyhood‘s most powerful dramatic chunk, which captures Mason’s mother’s second marriage to a domineering shit-head alcoholic, concludes with a faintly haunting lack of closure. There’s an eerie feeling life goes on for everybody, that people we move away from — those who damage, or break us — fade into spectres in our memories, like pages from a photo album we no longer want to turn.
At one point in the story Mason hangs out with teenage boys noticeably older than himself. It is one moment of understated dramatic authenticity in a film full of them. The boys lie about their sex lives, play pseudo macho head games and speak about girls using words like “whores,” though they probably don’t even understand what that means. They are little people in a big world, young and wimpish. Just like that kid on the tanbark, sucking on Redskins.