For the ages

Mason discovers the coolest thing ever: Netscape Navigator.

Mason discovers the coolest thing ever: Netscape Navigator.

Rated 5.0

A lot can go wrong when you film a movie on and off for more than 12 years with the cast aging naturally. Cast members could die, the director could lose his drive and quit, etc.

Boyhood, writer-director Richard Linklater’s amazing cinematic undertaking, doesn’t have the ring of experimental or stunt filmmaking about it. It’s just a great looking, terrifically acted, tremendously moving film made progressively over 12 years.

It’s an amazing thing to see young Mason (Ellar Coltrane, who we first see set to the joyous strains of Coldplay’s “Yellow” on the soundtrack) go from a wide-eyed 5-year-old boy staring at the sky to an 18-year-old college student dealing with girls and big life decisions. It’s equally fascinating to watch Ethan Hawke, playing Mason’s father, go from Training Day Hawke to The Purge Hawke in the course of three hours.

We also see Linklater’s daughter Lorelei playing Samantha, Mason’s sister, and Patricia Arquette as Mom, putting in her best performance since she graced the screen as Alabama in True Romance. All of the performers go through beautiful and awkward stages, aging before our eyes without the aid of special effects makeup.

All of this would mean relatively little if it was at the service of a bad screenplay. Happily, Linklater has delivered the sort of observational, honest, enlightening screenplay that made his School of Rock and Dazed and Confused such endearing films. While there have been great films about adolescence, family turmoil and growing up (Linklater having been the architect of a few), never before has one film captured the essence of “boyhood” quite like this.

Mason has three different dads in this movie, the first being his biological father played by Hawke. Hawke brings a bohemian charm to the well-meaning but somewhat flaky dad, basically a good man who didn’t have what it takes to last with Arquette’s mom. While he isn’t there every day, he remains an important force in Mason’s life.

As Mason’s first stepdad, Marco Perella delivers a chilling depiction of alcoholism, unlike any I have ever seen on screen. We first see him as Mom’s charming college professor, and ultimately see him in a visceral, frightening sequence involving a man out of control in front of his family. Perella worked on the film for three years, and his snarky disintegration into alcoholic madness is deserving of Oscar consideration.

Arquette is brilliant as the mom who makes a few mistakes along the way—her third husband isn’t much better than the first two—but keeps on chugging. She has a breakdown scene when Mason heads off to college that I’m sure many moms can relate to. It’s fun to see both Hawke and Arquette at Mason’s high school graduation party. While they surely aren’t Coltrane’s real parents, they probably attained some sort of honorary aunt and uncle status, having known Coltrane most of his life.

And what of Coltrane as Mason? How did Linklater know he was casting such an interesting kid when he signed him up? Every moment that Coltrane spends on the screen feels real and possesses the sort of depth many actors can’t muster. I especially liked young Mason’s face when he was getting an unwanted haircut. Coltrane does a great job showing the pain and tragedy of a haircut no boy wants to display at school.

It must’ve been a crazy day when they wrapped shooting on Boyhood. A cast and crew working together on the same story for over 12 years hugs and says goodbye as the whole thing heads to post-production. The resulting product is one of amazing foresight, almost impossible visual consistency, and rewarding performances.

This is a movie that will only be made once. Nobody will ever pull anything like Boyhood off again. Linklater has made a permanent, monumental mark on cinematic history.