Few films earn the right to be called a masterpiece. These are the films that go above and beyond merely being the best film of any given year and give in to the only kinds of justifiable hyperbole. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a masterpiece unlike anything else that has come before it; a work of deep intellect, emotion, empathy, and a wealth of shared human experience no filmmaker has ever captured before. It burrows beneath your skin and into your brain and stays there long after its 166 minutes have flown by in the blink of an eye. It’s not only the most passionately made and vital film of the year, it’s the most vital film of the century thus far, and no amount of prefabricated, prepackaged Oscar bait that comes out in the ensuing months will likely be able to touch it. Its beauty and truthfulness is so unfathomable that it has reduced me to a flood of superlatives.
Filmed for only a few days at a time over the course of 12 years, Linklater creates the story of one young man growing up. It’s scripted in terms of what happens in this young man’s life, but that’s as manufactured as it ever feels. The young man is named Mason. We follow him from the age of 5 to the age of 18, played the entire time in a nerve shatteringly excellent performance by Ellar Coltrane in what might be the most methodical and thought out performance in cinematic history. The character grows at the same rate as the actor playing him, but the performance is constantly mesmerizing. Through Mason’s eyes we watch the passing of America; moments great and small that come together in the same way we often think back on our own live, in a linear yet sometimes fractured form.
By the time we meet Mason, he’s already a child of divorce, living with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and his often antagonistic older sister (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter). His father (Ethan Hawke) – a wash out musician who left to go to Alaska to “find himself” – gets weekend visitation privileges and is only just learning what it means to be a good father, albeit from a distance. As he ages, his mother will remarry, they’ll uproot their lives several times to start anew, he’ll see friends come and go, he’ll puzzle over the behaviour of adults in his life, and sometimes against all odds he’ll turn out to be a generally alright and deeply likable young man.
That spoils nothing. It’s a hard film to spoil because deep down you already know every story beat even if it didn’t happen to you directly. If something in Boyhood doesn’t resonate with you as something you had to go through growing up, wait ten minutes and like the weather it will change. A cynic can watch something like this and fear that something this good will have to come to some sort of grand, melodramatic or histrionic crescendo, but Linklater never does that. Boyhood is just as much about the moments you see as the moments you don’t see, a film that’s purposefully told from a perspective of hindsight and maturity. It balances a beautiful sense of childlike confusion with an adult sensibility to look back on formative moments that can pinpoint what makes a person who they are. It’s also wisely being told by a graceful filmmaker like Linklater who never once posits that he knows all the answers to life’s biggest and smallest questions.
Years, months, and days pass in mere edits, sometimes obscuring what might be major events that don’t need to be seen to reverberate. These years are only distinguishable through brief pop songs that can elicit the memories of the characters to a place in time and the obvious aging that occurs so subtly. There’s so much to unpack inside of Boyhood that the omissions are understandable. This is a subtle film, only making on the nose observations when they’re unavoidable due to circumstance. It touches on issues of substance abuse, sexuality, first love, parenting, education, bullying, sibling rivalry, first jobs, partying underage, politics, economics, and just generally growing up in positively groundbreaking ways. Some might say that makes the film “ordinary” as if that’s some sort of bad thing, but in truth by making the character just an everyday person he shows that we all start out the same way. Mason has his talents, hobbies, proclivities, and things that set him apart from other kids, but at his heart he’s as confident, scared, conflicted, confounded, and contradictory as we all were growing up.
It’s our world. It’s a world without answers. The parents never seem to have them, either. Arquette’s often overburdened mother is constantly having her ideas on raising children challenged, and watching an actress that has been so underrated for so long get the chance to run with a role like this is a treat. The hindsight that Linklater imbues the film with are moments where the children clearly think mom is in the wrong, but the audience can identify that she’s usually right despite her own struggles with self-identification occasionally putting her family in danger.
On the other hand, Hawke (again, an incredibly underrated actor of our time) gets the chance to play someone who is finally learning to think about people other than himself. He’s maturing at the same rate as his son even though they don’t spend every day of their lives together. The final scene in the film that they share together after both have gone through massive changes in their lives to come together for a final talk after high school graduation is one of the best scenes of a father and son ever staged.
But the film’s biggest burden and blessing belongs to Coltrane who has to carry the film. He has to sell Mason’s trajectory gradually. Keep in mind that Coltrane himself is growing up as the film is being made. Keep in mind that this was a film that only shot for a few days every year. At a young age, he’s not a professional actor, and yet he would have to wrap his head around playing the same character for every major year of his life. It’s mindboggling that even actors like Hawke and Arquette could commit to such a long period of time, but for someone to dedicate a good portion of their childhood to come back to the same project year after year and to stick with it and show a consistent level of dedication to craft is nothing short of a landmark achievement that should be celebrated for decades to come. The flaws that he brings out in Mason as a character are things that can’t be written or directed. There are instinctual choices being made because we as an audience are allowed to see all of this characters growth taking place. It’s transformative to watch.
If it seems like I haven’t said much about Linklater up to this point, it’s because I almost don’t have to. This is one of the most tightly constructed humanist epics ever crafted. Every beat, moment, camera angle, song cue, and movement is something that has been rigorously thought out in terms of direction, but also loose enough to feel lived in and experienced. Linklater isn’t sugar coating how life should be framed. No one is a perfect person, not even Mason in a callous display of not being the bigger man late in the film that’s somewhat open to interpretation. Linklater isn’t just crafting a film about one person’s youth, but one about his own. It’s so emotional that there’s no way it couldn’t be profoundly personal. Usually that spells death for a director, but Linklater lets his heart and mind work in tandem to create something beautiful. Also, when you think that this film was started around the time he was making School of Rock and that it ended just recently after wrapping the entirety of his Before trilogy with about a dozen films made during this film’s production, it’s amazing that he could keep coming back to this project with the dedication and love that he brings.
There will never be another film like Boyhood. Ever. It could never happen. This is a singular phenomenon like a comet shooting across the sky. It’s a film that I could see teaching classes on shot for shot and scene for scene. It’s Linklater’s masterpiece to be sure, and one of the greatest films ever made in the history of cinema. And I have no hesitation in saying that. You see it as soon as possible and it will stick with you for a lifetime.