The possibility for disaster was high when Richard Linklater embarked on his experiment of filming Boyhood in 2002. The film was shot over the course of twelve years using the same actor to tell the story of Mason, who we see progress from age six to eighteen, and the people who come in and out of his life during that time period.
My respect and admiration for Linklater’s commitment to a project of such enormous scope is hard to overstate. When he chose child actor Ellar Coltrane to carry what would become a three hour study of a child coming of age in America, he had no idea what he would get as the years passed, and Coltrane’s talents could either grow or stagnate. This risk was compounded when Linklater cast his own young daughter in the pivotal role of Mason’s older sister, Samantha.
Ultimately, the risk was well worth the reward. Boyhood is not a perfect film, to be sure, but overall it was worth the unusual time and evident care taken to complete. Coltrane isn't a great actor, but he’s not a terrible one, either. He pulls some scenes off very well, like his reactions during a drunken outburst from his stepfather. Others, like his young adult ramblings about life towards the end of the film, he struggles with. The same can be said for Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei. A fight with her mother in the first half of the movie comes off as staged, but she becomes a more confident performer as she ages. The bulk of criticism for the film has tended to overvalue their performances, from my perspective, but that sort of judgment can be very subjective.
The most stunning thing about the picture is simply seeing these kids grow up right in front of our eyes. No real signposts are marked for the audience. No title cards announcing how much time has passed, you just see it in their faces as scenes transition from one to another, and it’s a powerful bit of magic to behold. You can even see it in the faces of the adult actors, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who play the kids’ parents. Hawke, of course, regularly collaborates with the director and both he and Arquette do great work here.
That being said, I was surprised to find I wasn't as swept up with the film as I had expected. Nostalgia is also a very subjective thing, and I think if this film had been made during the years 1986 to 1998, say, I would have felt extremely connected from frame one. I have the feeling that for people the same age as Coltrane, this film (especially as time passes and it’s watched again as they get older) will act as an emotionally powerful time capsule, capturing perfectly the iconography of the period. Linklater inserts popular songs and other significant cultural artifacts (like The Flaming Lips’ Do You Realize??, and conversations about the war in Iraq) as the years pass, making it evident how much he cares about chronicling the human experience of this specific time and place.
What does it mean to grow up right now in America? Linklater wants to know and to share that knowledge with his audiences. Unfortunately, it is easy to forget how many different American coming of age experiences there are to be told. Because we still live in a society dominated by straight, white men, that is the predominant perspective viewers receive here. Even though Linklater does a fairly good job of including the sister’s story, enough that Childhood could easily have been an alternate title, by naming it Boyhood the director immediately establishes the point of view that seems to matter most.
I don’t mean to take anything away from Boyhood, which is a powerful and moving achievement in film-making. However, I hope we are mature enough to complicate the discussion a little in terms of what perspectives get a chance to be expressed in our culture, which ones we raise up into our collective consciousness. There is more than enough room for other points of view than the one Boyhood offers, no matter how worthwhile that one is, too.