[A version of this review appears in the Portland Observer, here: http://portlandobserver.com/news/2014/jul/30/real-life-drama/]
The concept behind Richard Linklater's new film, "Boyhood," seems so obvious when you hear it that you wonder why it has never been done before. Filmed over 12 actual years, the film follows the fictional story of a boy's childhood -- ages 6 to 18 -- with the same actors playing the boy, his older sister, and his divorced parents. Far from a gimmick, the result, in director Linklater's capable hands, is a revelation. Never has a film so poignantly captured the sweet ache of family life, of parenting, and of the passing of childhood.
The story is deceptively simple. It follows the lives of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his frequently annoying older sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei), and their parents through moves, marriages, and divorces, and the dramas, big and small, of everyday life. And it is, quite literally, the story of Mason's coming-of-age.
Coming-of-age stories are nothing new. Generally they focus on a pivotal event or a life-changing summer. But if you think about it, most people's lives don't contain that type of dramatic arc. The changes come incrementally -- little shifts occur in attitude and perspective, or trust is built or lost in an accumulation of small incidents. Kids take risks all the time -- it's a wonder any of us survive childhood -- but most people survive just fine. So, though there are moments in this film where the audience is primed for a major dramatic turn (particularly a scene where a middle-school-aged Mason is drinking with his friends and there are weapons around), those moments mostly play out in the same understated way that most people's lives do. You don't miss that movie-dramatic arc either -- this story makes you care, and wonder, like you would in real life.
It strikes me that Linklater's method may have yielded a sort of spiritual process for capturing the soul of growing up. He started with the outlines of a story and with two carefully chosen kids, and when filming began there wasn't a complete script. Instead, Linklater checked in with Coltrane and the rest of the cast each year, assessed where Coltrane was emotionally and experientially, and then wrote the screenplay for that segment, informed by the truth of the cast's own lives. The physical and emotional development of the characters connected with the physical and emotional development of the cast, and the filming involved no exterior judgment of the product -- as Linklater puts it, for years it was all process, no product.
The result plays more like real life than any non-documentary feature I can remember. The drama of the lives of the family members is made up of small moments: Samantha deliberately annoying her brother with a Britney Spears song; Mason eavesdropping on mom arguing with her boyfriend; the two kids competing for the attention of their wayward dad after a long absence; Mason perusing a lingerie catalog with his pals; the accumulation of signs that the kids' new stepdad has a drinking problem; a fishing trip between Mason and his dad in which you hear Mason's voice changing; and a laconic adolescent Mason being lectured by a series of adults.
Never have movie children looked and sounded more like actual kids. Unlike the usual well-scrubbed and articulate movie children, these kids sometimes look as though their clothes don't fit quite right, or they have bad haircuts or acne. They are cute kids, but the kind of cute kids you might actually meet. And they are sometimes maddening -- sulky and uncommunicative, or self-absorbed. Their conversations with their peers sound like these kids overestimate what they know, and you cringe with recognition as you watch them overshoot which experiences they are ready for.
The parents, too, look familiar. They are by turns beleaguered, or lazy, or harried; they miss the strain their choices put on the children. Mom (Patricia Arquette) presents a combination of attentive and blind that is rarely depicted so accurately; she loves and listens to her kids, but seems to have a knack for picking men who will and do jeopardize their well-being. And dad (Ethan Hawke) seems at times to be playing at parenthood, yet you see how his intentions toward his kids nudge him to grow up himself.
The flexibility and trust involved in Linklater's process yields an authenticity that couldn't be arrived at any other way. It reminded me of the quality of conversation that becomes possible when you make a habit of showing up over and over again; you may not ever have the silver bullet revelation that explains the arc of a relationship, but you will share plenty of small moments that will yield glimmers of the soul of the other. Linklater and his cast have constructed a container for something ineffable: and rich.
The tenderness here will make you weep for your own childhood, or that of your children. It will nudge you to reflect on your own efforts to explain something difficult to a child, or to answer questions for which you don't have answers, or don't trust the answers. It will remind you of just how darling an awkward adolescent can be.