The circumstances under which Richard Linklater's moving and formally ambitious Boyhood was made are well-known by now, but it's worth repeating them just to point out what an unusual American film Linklater has made. Boyhood was shot for several weeks each year during the years 2002 to 2013. We watch the man character, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), grow from a child of 6 to a young man of 18 alongside his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). The fact that Richard Linklater was able to complete Boyhood and have it released by a studio is itself worthy of celebration, but the creation shouldn't overshadow discussion of the work itself. I can't recall seeing an American film quite like this one ever before. The only films I can recall that consider childhood (and the way children are buffeted by forces outside their control) in quite the same way come from around the world: Edward Yang's Yi Yi, or works by Truffaut or Bergman. Richard Linklater has never been shy of work - Boyhood is his 17th feature by my count - but if there was any prior doubt that he should be considered as a major American director that doubt has now been put to rest. Boyhood marks Richard Linklater as America's greatest European filmmaker.
The first act of Boyhood takes young Mason from a paycheck-to-paycheck existence with his mother and sister into his mother's marriage to a professor (Marco Perella) she meets upon going back to school. The professor, with two kids of his own, turns out to be an alcoholic nightmare and Mason's mother flees with her children in a scene remarkable for its ordinary ugliness. The question of what will happen to the professor's own children is raised but never answered, and it's one of many times that Linklater avoids easy resolutions or melodrama in a way that feels effortless and natural. Each time it feels like we might be being set up for a plot twist down the road (Mason is given a shotgun by his grandfather, he's warned not to text and drive by his dad.), Linklater passes on the cheap drama and instead chooses the human moment. This approach extends to the darkest scenes, such as Mason coming upon his mother on the ground after the professor has struck her. Indeed the last scene of the film, shortly after Mason arrives at college, is the articulation of the film's vision. Life isn't a series of narrative twists but rather an accumulation of moments and details, and to accept that is the first step in forging a path of one's own.
There is another bad marriage, a few more moves, and eventually a new career for Mason's mother, who is played by Patricia Arquette with a harried dignity. As Mason grows up he drifts towards art and photography, and while his relationship with his Mom feels believably awkward his bond with his Dad strengthens as the years go by. Ethan Hawke is skilled at conveying the sense of being overwhelmed by circumstances, and his transformation from well-meaning goof to remarried family man may very quietly be his best film performance. Ellar Coltrane proves more than capable of the decade-plus task of carrying Boyhood. Coltrane has a few other credits but obviously grew into himself on this film, and he's very good at conveying the sense of a person discovering himself. In an alternate universe a different Linklater might have made Boyhood with a conventional shooting schedule and used different actors to play Mason at different ages. But a "child actor" as Mason would have destroyed the film's illusion of a life unfolding as we watch it, its sense of open-heartedness towards everything from family to a church service to a Harry Potter release party. In this universe however, we are the recipients of a film that is both a peak in its maker's career and full of a love so sorely lacking in most American cinema.