Early in “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s bracingly original, utterly enthralling new film about the passage of time through the lens of one boy’s life, we find our characters at a real Houston Astros game. And, with the cameras rolling, wouldn’t you know it — the Astros hit a home run.
How lucky, you think, that Linklater was able to incorporate a real-life homer into his scene. But as the film progresses — at its own relaxed, distinctive pace — you soon realize that virtually every scene is a little home run of its own. And luck has very little to do with it.
We already knew that Linklater was one of our most accomplished independent filmmakers, and anyone who’s a fan of his “Before” trilogy — “Before Sunrise,” ‘’Before Sunset” and the recent, wonderful “Before Midnight” — knows how eloquently he can portray the passage of time.
But “Boyhood” is something different entirely. Filmed over 12 years, for a few days each year, the movie follows one family — two parents, two kids — as they navigate love, marriage, divorce, school, work, pain, pleasure and everything else a family can go through.
Yet the story isn’t particularly dramatic — certainly not by the standards of typical Hollywood storytelling. Indeed, its utter simplicity — some might say even banality — is its strength. What happens to this family, and specifically to Mason, the main character, over 12 years? Life. That’s what happens.
While everything about “Boyhood” is done with extraordinary care, the master stroke was clearly the casting, 13 years ago, of a little Texas boy named Ellar Coltrane, with a mop of light brown hair and dreamy eyes. It’s hard to imagine Linklater could have known then that he’d develop into such a soulful adolescent, or such a thoughtful-yet-awkward young man, perfect for the later scenes. But he did.
We first meet Mason lying on the grass, staring at the sky. He and big sister Sam (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), are living with their harried, divorced mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette). Dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is charming and loving but unreliable, and he’s been off finding himself in Alaska.
Mom moves the family to Houston so she can go back to school and get her degree. She ends up marrying her psychology professor (an excellent Marco Perella), and it’s a catastrophe — he turns out to be a dangerous, angry drunk. (These scenes are harrowing.)
Olivia escapes with her kids, begins a teaching career, makes another bad husband choice. Meanwhile, Dad grows up, remarries, has a baby. Sister Sam morphs from a precocious young girl who sings Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” to an awkward preteen with braces to a cocky teenager, who responds to a demand to dust the house: “I mean, who DUSTS anymore?”
The film’s full of fun cultural markers. Cellphones become smartphones. Mason’s GameBoy becomes an Xbox. Political talk ranges from George Bush and the Iraq invasion to the Obama-McCain race in 2008 and later developments. The soundtrack carefully echoes the changing times. And in a prescient moment, dad and son discuss whether there should ever be a “Star Wars” sequel. (They decide it wouldn’t work. Ha.)
The film, shot entirely in the disappearing 35mm format, feels so much like a documentary that occasionally pieces of clearly scripted dialogue sound forced. But that’s rare. Mostly the actors blend seamlessly with Linklater’s naturalistic style. Arquette is heartbreaking as a mom who tries so hard, but always comes up short. Hawke continues to do his best work with Linklater, seemingly his artistic soul mate.
But the actor who will stay with you the most is Coltrane. Late in the film, an adult who hasn’t seen Mason in years squints and says, “Mason, is that YOU?” If you’re like me, you may find yourself smiling knowingly, with even a tinge of pride. Because by this time, we don’t just know Mason; Mason is ours.
That’s the simple brilliance of Linklater’s achievement.
“Boyhood,” an IFC Films release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association of America “for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use.” Running time: 166 minutes.