The journey of life is something special. For better or worse, the experiences thrown at us make us who were are. Go ahead, roll your eyes. It’s all one big cliché, but only because it’s true. Our family, the people we meet, the choices we make, they all come together to help shape our lives. We go through plenty of pain and heartbreak, but hopefully when its all said and done, we experience some good as well. All of this is a part of the experience of life.
The master director Richard Linklater successfully captures this idea with his mesmerizing new film Boyhood. Out of the 20 films I caught at SXSW, none left more of an impression on me than Linklater’s moving picture. It’s as ambitious of a film as they come. Filmed over the course of 12 years, the film follows a family as they aged naturally over time. As do the actors that play them. Over the last 12 years he would meet with his set of actors and resume filming each year, capturing the actors as they too got older. We get to follow the boy from age 5 to 18. What this does is show the growth of this family over time, in a devastatingly effective manner that has never been done before.
The first shot of the film is of young Mason, played by (then) child actor Ellar Coltrane. We see Mason as a young 1st grader, coming home to his family consisting of his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and slightly older sister Samantha (Richard’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater). There’s also his father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who isn’t around much as he is separated from Olivia and is constantly changing jobs.
On the surface, there really is no “plot”. What you do have is this family, who you watch go through the trials and tribulations of life. Olivia runs through bad men like a buffet, throwing Mason and Samantha’s life into a constant sea of unsteadiness. We see Mason Sr. try to salvage the relationship with his children, just as he himself begins to settle down again with a new family. It’s just how life goes.
There’s something poetic and truly beautiful about seeing the characters age naturally throughout the film. Before you know it, Mason is a fully grown teenage boy, experimenting with alcohol and woman. You see his parents get significantly older. Soon enough you’ll see bits and pieces of your own life reflected in this family. Things that happened to you, bad choices you made, it’s scary how true to life it all seems.
By the end of it all, you think of Mason as your own son. You’d seen him as just a little kid, and now he’s a man. When he says goodbye to his mom before leaving for college, it’s a punch in the gut. You get that lumpy feeling again, that same one you had when you yourself had to say goodbye. It all seems so real and familiar.
It was a bold move to rest the film on the shoulders of a child actor at the age of 7. Who knows what you would get when he’s all grown up? Luckily, Ellar Coltrane is absolutely perfect in the role, showing growth and maturity with every bit of aging. Patricia Arquette also hammers home an incredible performance of emotional weight. You can’t help but feel for her. There’s also plenty of moments for Ethan Hawke to shine, we all know how well he works with Linklater after three terrific Before movies.
Of course, credit to Linklater for taking the time to write and direct such a moving feature. It’s an ode to the state of Texas in a way, with almost all of the action contained right there. He captures all the little details to make the 12-year element work, such as playing memorable tunes throughout the times. At the beginning we get early 2000s cuts such as Coldplay’s “Yellow”, The Hives “Hate To Say I Told You So” and Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” Later on we get more recent cuts such as Phoenix’s “1901” and even Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Linklater always has a keen ear for music, and he uses it to his full advantage here. When you think back at all those seminal songs that impacted you throughout your life, you think of the time and place of where you first heard it. This is something Linklater fully understands and uses it to its maximum effect.
I’ve never seen a film quite like Boyhood before. It’s truly an important film, one that should be discussed and studied for many years to come. If not, that’s ok too. I’m just thankful to have been able to see it and let it take me over for nearly 3 hours (I didn’t notice the length at all).
I’ll happily admit I shed a tear or two when it was all said and done. As did many of the fellow patrons that sat around me. I was awestruck by how beautifully well done Boyhood was, but judging by the massive standing ovation the film received after its screening, I’m not the only one. Not only was Boyhood the best thing I saw at SXSW, it’s the best film I’ve seen so far this year. It’s early, but I have a feeling it will stick around even come December.