The swooning of critics over Boyhood has reached near-embarrassing levels. But there’s no getting around it; this is a remarkable movie, a testament to the singular vision of writer-director Richard Linklater. And while that doesn’t necessarily make Boyhood an unqualified triumph, its deficiencies as a story are more than made up for by its overall power.
The project was definitely a compelling one. Linklater — whose credits include Dazed and Confused, School of Rock and the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) — and his Boyhood cast shot for about a week every summer over a 12-year period to chronicle a boy’s life. Other movies have captured the phenomenon of kids growing up, most notably the Harry Potter franchise and Michael Apted’s Up series. But Boyhood, which screens Thursday through Sunday at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive, offers the exhilarating experience of watching that journey unfold in one fell swoop.
Its central character, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), is growing up in Texas. We see that growth literally as he transforms from a doughy 6-year- old to a lanky, contemplative college freshman. Linklater marks the passage of time through cultural touchstones — the Iraq War, Obama’s election — and a music soundtrack that ranges from Coldplay and Sheryl Crow to Arcade Fire and The Black Keys. Through it all, Mason continues on his unwieldy transition. Sometimes those physical changes can be jarring. If I hadn’t known better, I might have thought that Coltrane had been replaced between seventh and eighth grade. Within minutes, the boy is taller and slender, his voice having deepened. When it comes to special effects in movies, puberty is in a class of its own.
Changing right along with Mason is older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and single mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette, Fast Food Nation). Shortly after the film begins, Olivia moves the family to Houston so she can return to college. The new location doesn’t keep Mason’s biological father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke, Before Midnight), from staying involved in his kids’ lives.
Boyhood is as much a story of parenthood as it is Mason’s. Arquette is excellent as a single parent doing the best she can in spite of some dicey decisions. Hawke has never been better as a guy who initially seems like the reluctant grownup clinging to youthful cool. But Mason Sr. proves to be more interesting than that, a loving and committed father offering his kids a litany of life lessons.
Mason Jr. receives a torrent of advice from the adults who shuffle through his life, all of which is taken in and assessed by the quiet, observant boy with searching eyes. Linklater was fortunate when he cast 6-year-old Coltrane. Before filming began each year, the director visited with his young actor about what was going on in his life. Those discussions informed the screenwriting that followed. What emerged was a charismatic performance that is compromised only by Mason Jr.’s passivity.
The movie is so ingenious and so risky that it feels ill-mannered to note its problems. But Boyhood is imperfect. Its acting, a blend of professionals and nonprofessionals alike, is strikingly uneven. Linklater’s writing can be erratic. And the film’s determination to capture childhood in all its shambling, mundane glory means that it largely soars and stumbles based on the vagaries of the viewer. We process all art through the filter of our own psychological baggage, of course, but Boyhood seems especially tethered to what it awakens in our own memories.
Mason’s life unfolds through ordinary, if resonant, moments. He considers a dead bird on the ground. He gets a haircut. He endures the scrutiny of being the new kid at school. He drinks beer with older boys who taunt him and posture about sexual conquests. There are many lovely and stirring scenes along the way, but a running time of more than two and a half hours makes for an awful lot of desultory moments, too.
Just like life.
And that is where Boyhood, with all its blemishes and gangly awkwardness, finds both its greatness and frustration. In capturing the halting rhythms of life, Linklater has achieved something truly amazing.
7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Oklahoma City Museum of Art
415 Couch Drive