It is difficult to overstate the sheer brass of writer-director Richard Linklater in conceiving a drama that traverses a boy's growth into manhood over 12 years.
Let's make this clear: Linklater filmed over a period of 12 years, essentially documenting the growth of his central character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from age six to 18. Linklater also signed on his frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise) and Patricia Arquette, committing to a long thespian haul, to play his parents, Mason Sr. and Olivia.
Linklater has opportunity to turn the movie into a lucrative exercise in nostalgia (let's face it, no one yearns for the past quite like an 18-year-old). Indeed, anyone in the age bracket of Mason and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), might experience warm tingles of familiarity. Witness an early scene in which young Samantha bugs little bro with a rendition of Britney Spears' Oops!... I Did it Again. Later, Mom takes her children to a magical book launch for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince and dad makes the kids help him campaign for the election of Barack Obama (an adventure in itself, given the film's Texas setting).
Linklater is not here to trade in cheap sentiment, however. While the film affixes certain cultural markers to the timeline, especially in the soundtrack (everyone from Bob Dylan to Coldplay to Lady Gaga), the emphasis is on an organic coming-of-age tale where the audience is spared the typically jarring transition in which a child actor is suddenly replaced by a different teen actor.
Mason has an eventful but not uncommon childhood marked early by the divorce of his mom and dad. Olivia is raising the kids on her own and taking college classes. Dad has taken off to Alaska to find himself. But before long, he returns to Texas to take a more active hand in parenting (Mason Jr. is not the only person to do a little growing up in this movie).
Attached to Olivia, Mason and Samantha follow her into other relationships, attempts at domestic stability that fail -- spectacularly, in the case of her marriage to a seemingly normal psychology professor who turns out to be an abusive, alcoholic monster. Orbiting around them like an infrequent yet reliable satellite, dad Mason Sr. tries to pick up the slack, allowing his children to talk to him freely and exhorting them, when they have reached an appropriate age, to learn from the mistakes of their parents. (One imagines a few single dads out there being able to relate to Mason Sr. giving his kids a lesson in sex education in a bowling alley restaurant, one of the film's funnier but tender scenes.)
As in Linklater's Before Sunrise cycle of films, Boyhood can be talky, but entertainingly so. Grounded in strong, surprisingly consistent performances, it has the power to surprise, especially in the way events can thread through the narrative, lost for a couple of years only to be picked up later.
If Linklater refuses to play the nostalgia game, he even more adamantly avoids the coming-of-age cliché. In any other movie, if a gang of teens committed beer-fuelled vandalism in a half-constructed house, or a kid took a sip from a whiskey flask while driving, there would inevitably follow a square-up scene, set in a police station or a hospital or a morgue.
Linklater's refusal to go there speaks of a more generous view of presumed youthful folly. Even Mason's casual intake of a magic mushroom yields a nice moment of climactic revelation while simultaneously calling back to an earlier dialogue with his dad, in which the child comes to the realization that the magic of fantasy books isn't real. Dad's counter-argument: That doesn't mean magic can't be found.
Case in point: Boyhood.