Movie Review: Boyhood (2014)

Title: Boyhood
Release Date: July 11, 2014
Director: Richard Linklater
Production Company: IFC Productions | Detour Filmproduction | Cinetic Media

Boyhood has been on my “To Be Watched” list for some time due to its unique approach of filming over a dozen years to tell a story about a child growing up. In recent years, there have been some great movies depicting childhood such as Eighth Grade (which covers one year in a life) and Moonlight (which uses three actors to portray the same character at different periods in life) but it is unique for a fictional film to follow the same child actor portraying the same character over an extended period of time.

Director Richard Linklater is fortunate that Ellar Coltrane, who portrays the lead character Mason, is not only a great, naturalistic actor, but that he was able to commit to the whole project.  While the movie is not called Girlhood, it also features a fantastic performance by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater as Mason’s older sister, Samantha.  Anchoring the film are
Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the children’s parents. Arquette puts in a spectacular performance as Olivia, a single mother challenged with balancing work, returning to college, and her personal social life.  Hawke plays Mason, Sr., the fun but irresponsible father who nevertheless tries to remain in his children’s life as they move about Texas.  The “taskmaster mother/fun father” dynamic is a familiar one, but I also appreciate that the characters are not shackled to the stereotypes, and the parents grow and change almost as much as the children.

Boyhood is not a movie for people who need a strict plot, as scenes from 12 years in the life of a child can in no way be strung into a single narrative.  There also isn’t any identification of when the years change between scenes, but different hairstyles, new technologies, and references to current events in the background help identify the date.  The movie is best viewed as a series of vignettes, many of which are powerfully acted focusing on moments in life both meaningful and mundane.

At one point, Olivia remarries, her husband turning out to be an abusive alcoholic. The film portrays the horror of her children reacting to his violent outbursts but also the sorrow of being separated from the the step-siblings they’ve bonded with.  We never see them again, which is something that recurs in the film as a person appears to play a seemingly significant part in the movie and are never seen again, which is a lot like life. The theme of Boyhood also is explored as Mason has to learn from many imperfect models of masculinity, from his father’s well-intentioned but off-the-mark talks, to older kids who make casual sexist and homophobic statements.

One glaring flaw that stands out in this movie is that almost every character is white.  Even Mason’s classroom is depicted with only white students. On the one hand it can be a sadly accurate depiction of how the United States is still segregated, but in a film set in a diverse state like Texas it’s still unsettling that black and brown faces only appear occasionally in the background.  For this and other reasons, Boyhood is not a representative story of growing up in America, but it is a realistic portrayal of the life of a child.

Rating: ****