Richard Linklater’s crowning achievement is the “Before” series, a trilogy of snapshots of a couple at different points in their life, taken roughly every nine years. “Boyhood” is a project of similar scope, filmed over 12 years as it follows Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to his first day of college. Watching Mason grow up allows for the small details of his life to accumulate, and as Linklater’s sprawling chronicle of adolescence reaches its end, it makes a powerful impact through its quietly masterful wisdom and authenticity.
The film doesn’t follow the arc of any traditional plot, and it steers free of the traditional signposts that populate most coming-of-age films. We don’t see Mason’s first kiss, and he happily skips prom. Nonetheless, there are sequences built into Linklater’s epic tale, like the harrowing dissolution of his mother’s (Patricia Arquette) second marriage, or a weekend trip to Austin with a girlfriend. The film doesn’t just follow Mason, either – Arquette and Ethan Hawke play Mason’s divorced parents and Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, plays Samantha, Mason’s sister.
Hawke is a frequent Linklater collaborator, and while his character initially seems to be a riff on the lovable loser role he’s perfected, Hawke brings a dimensionality and compassion to the role. Patricia Arquette shines as Mason’s mother, who has a more consistent presence in her children’s lives, and watching the slow reality of her impending empty nest settle in over the last few years of the film gives “Boyhood” its most devastating moments.
Ellar Coltrane starts off hitting the occasional false note, but the power of watching him grow up over the years, shooting up like a weed between scenes or suddenly sporting a thin line of peach fuzz on his upper lip, is undeniable. Coltrane grows into an understated, skilled performer with time, and in the later stretches of the film, he ably delivers Linklater’s trademark philosophical musings, speaking with the equally confident and awkward lilt of a teen trying to comprehend the implications of his words as they spill from him. Lorelei Linklater, on the other hand, is a natural screen presence from the start, and there’s a welcome wit to Samantha that makes Mason’s teen angst years go down a little smoother.
Linklater builds some smart time markers into the narrative, often signaling that we’ve changed years with “modern” pop songs, carefully selected to both ground us in a year and evoke nostalgia. “Boyhood” is full of small, effective details like that, honestly observed and combining to present a moving scrapbook of a childhood. It’s Linklater’s measured, authentic approach that makes the film’s low-key climactic moments, a loaded conversation between Mason and his father and his mother’s reaction to Mason’s departure for college, land with meaningful impact.
Innovative may be the most overused word at all of SXSW, but it’s also the absolute best word to describe “Boyhood.” Linklater tries something that’s never been attempted on film before, and succeeds with flying colors. “Boyhood” tells the story of its young hero with an attention to detail that makes Mason’s life ring with familiarity, and there’s such authenticity and power to Linklater’s approach. Maybe there is another word to describe “Boyhood:” Masterpiece.