In 2002, filmmaker Richard Linklater selected a six-year-old actor named Ellar Coltrane to be the star of his new movie Boyhood, which was expected to take twelve years to film.
Linklater also cast seasoned actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke to play the boy’s divorcing parents, and signed his own eight-year-old daughter Lorelei Linklater on as the older sister. Big sister Lorelei steals the show in the movie’s first couple of scenes, first with a Britney Spears dance number, and then with a temper tantrum at a family meal. This is where Boyhood’s journey begins. When the movie is over, twelve years or two hours and forty-five minutes later, all of the characters has been transformed, and the audience has been transformed too.
I’m a Richard Linklater fan — sure, I love Slacker and Dazed and Confused, though I never got to see the Trilogy. I’m probably in the minority among Linklater fans because I like School of Rock better than Dazed and Confused. But I have a new favorite Richard Linklater film today. Boyhood is his masterpiece, the most fully realized work of his career.
That’s not to say that Boyhood is different from other Linklater films. The ingredients are the same: lazy Texans of all ages and lifestyles wandering through kitchens and office buildings and parking lots, mumbling and talking, flirting, falling in love, eating, partying, reading, getting on each other’s nerves, learning to forgive each other. Linklater’s genius is always to allow the personalities of his characters to find their own chemistry, and to capture these subtle chemical reactions as they occur on screen.
Linklater has a lighter touch than most filmmakers, and he always seems deeply aware of nature: the soft environments of Texas’s communities and college towns, the park benches people sit on, the rumpled clothes they wear. The physical world is the comic foil to his hapless characters, who are often otherwise lost in internal or imaginary worlds. With Boyhood, Richard Linklater is able to elevate his art to a higher level because he suddenly has a new physical medium to work with. That medium is the amazing miracle of human life, of growth, of the way we change as we exist in time.
Empowered with this unique mission to film a fictional coming-of-age story with real actors over twelve years, Richard Linklater is clever enough to retain his light directorial touch, to let the story meander and find its own grooves. The movie’s narrative plot line itself is more familiar than surprising: step parents, bicycle rides, troubles with school, troubles with abusive adults, girlfriends.
The film is not perfect: at times the meandering plot hovers pointlessly over nothing much for too long, and there are also moments when the actors fail to maintain the high level of realism and seriousness that usually characterize these performances. One scene with five adolescent boys doing dumb things in a woodshed is so stiff and artificial that I can’t understand why Richard Linklater left it in the film.
But it’s only because this movie skims the shimmering surface of naturalism and method acting so skillfully that every flash of a phony moment appears startling and disruptive. Patricia Arquette is wonderful and soulful as the sensible but overworked mother in almost all of the movie, but her acting skills fail her in a scene near the end in which she’s supposed to cry.
She’s crying because her gawky and now cool son Ellar Coltrane is all grown up and heading off to college. This should be a vital moment in the movie, except that Patricia Arquette does that thing where she hides her eyes and tries to talk in a choked voice but everybody watching the movie can easily tell she’s not crying. (In real life, when people cry, they don’t usually hide their eyes and turn away. They usually just go with the moment and stare straight ahead and let it all out.)
At moments like these, one wonders if Richard Linklater is being selective enough about his final cut. One also wonders whether or not, say, the great naturalistic director Mike Leigh might not have managed to get Patricia Arquette to cry.
Of course, since this is a Linklater film, all the major performances in this film are uncommonly good. In the end the star who shines most brightly is Ellar Coltrane himself. This young actor does manage to cry in one remarkable moment in the middle of the film. This is when Ethan Hawke tells him that he just sold his Pontiac GTO. The son is devastated, because his father had once said he would give him the GTO when he turned 16. The father is stunned that his son would even take this idea seriously, as he had no intention of ever giving him the GTO. This is the kind of scene in which Linklater’s talent for chemistry produces the best results.
In another of the movie’s best scenes, early in the movie, the boy is helping his Mom paint the walls of their new home. He sees on a doorway a haunting trace of the family that lived there before: a set of height markings for several children, scrawled in pen and pencil, with names and dates.
Young Ellar Coltrane stares at this exhibit for a long moment. Then, slowly, gently, he begins to paint it over.