Whatever it is, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is not quite like anything else. Even the Michael Apted Up series is a different beast, since those are documentaries and this is a self-contained dramatic creation. Just about everyone in the critical world has heaped unstinting praise on it (166 positive reviews vs. two negative ones on Rotten Tomatoes). That it has proved enough of a box office performer for it to be treated as a kind of blockbuster in art film terms is certainly remarkable. This so easily could have been a grand folly by a filmmaker who is no stranger to follies — grand and otherwise. Boyhood is a work that few would even consider undertaking: the story of a boy’s life shot over a period of 12 years — with the same major players in for the duration — that tells its story in vignettes of little more than 10-minute durations each year. Linklater’s attempt is less to tell a story than it is to capture both a life and its times in narrative form. As an idea, it’s … well, on the crazy side. That it works at all is astonishing. That it works as well as it does is almost miraculous.
Setting aside the almost stunt quality of its making (which is hard to do), how good is it really? Is it the “game changer” that has been claimed? Well, since shooting movies over a period of 12 years is unlikely to catch on, I’d say it isn’t. Is it the “greatest coming-of-age” film of all time? I’m hesitant to climb on that bandwagon, because covering a life from 6 to 18 is both more and less than a coming-of-age story — that swath is too broad to conveniently pigeonhole. It has to be taken on its own terms. Is it a great film? Well, maybe — time will tell. It is not without its problems. The acting is often uneven. Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, who plays Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) sister, Samantha, is sometimes distractingly shrill (especially early on). Coltrane himself makes up for any acting inexperience by having a likable screen presence. The nature of the film also makes it a rather long affair — 165 minutes — but I don’t think it would work at all were it any shorter. Some of the minor criticisms I’ve read — that it’s sometimes pleasantly observational and other times too story-driven — seem to me to miss the point. Life itself is like this — and that’s what Linklater is after here.
There really isn’t much in the way of a plot. We simply drop in on Mason and his family — and fluctuating extended family — once a year. What drama there is — apart from Mom’s (Patricia Arquette) less-than-stellar choices in husbands, perhaps including Dad (Ethan Hawke) — is largely incidental. It’s mostly in the details — often little things you barely notice, like the obliteration of a children’s growth chart in a rental property — that the film scores its points. Ultimately — like life — it matters very little that the story lacks much in the way of shape, because the individual moments add up to something perhaps even better. And I mean that in terms of this one case. I don’t think I’d care for a steady diet of this approach, but here it works. It evokes memories of one’s own life, even if the specifics are different, and the whole film is infused with a bittersweet quality that stays with you long after the film.
Almost as remarkable as the idea of a filmmaker following the same characters for 12 years is the concept of a filmmaker staying true to such an idea for that same period of time. By this I mean that Richard Linklater isn’t the same filmmaker — or person — that he was in 2002 when this started. A lot of artistic growth — to say nothing of personal events we know nothing about — happened in that time. If the film reflects those changes — and it almost certainly must — it does so smoothly. It does so so smoothly that it always feels like a single film. I think that may impress me more than anything, which is saying something, since there is much here that impresses me — even if I’m not quite as in love with Boyhood as I’m supposed to be. Rated R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.