It takes a strong amount of dedication to film a project over 12 years with the same cast. What Richard Linklater has done here in Boyhood (2014) is nothing short of remarkable in a modern day sense with strict budgets, deadlines and churning out projects quickly the norm of today. He began in a world right after 9/11, full of paranoia, dominated in popular culture by Dragonball Z and Britney Spears, goes through the Harry Potter phenomenon and Game Boy and the insurgency of the Iraq War and finishes with the ascent of Barack Obama. Over such changing times and a world that has developed constantly, perhaps Linklater’s point is that some things in life are universal, including growing up, dealing with parents and discovering what you really want in life.
This journey is typified in the protagonist Mason, Ellar Coltrane, as he goes from literally a small child to a freshman in college. Along the way, he deals with his fluttering mother, Patricia Arquette, as she bounces from lover to husband, each one seemingly a drunk or an incompetent, his sister, Samantha, Lorelei Linklater, and her own journey, and his estranged father, Ethan Hawke, always trying to instill in him some guidelines and morals, often in unintentionally humorous ways. As each of them tries to raise Mason to be a good man and to make the best living for him while dealing with their own personal issues, Mason is finally able to see that growing up is not about achieving a perfect existence, but enjoying the right moments when they happen.
Mason goes through girlfriends, drugs, friends and fads, each changing with age and outlooks on life. Through each of them, he grows before our eyes, offering an interesting perspective on how not only things change as we age, but on how things changed over just the past few years. I imagine the film plays quite differently for the parents, empathizing with the older characters, and young adults, empathizing with the younger characters. Linklater attempts to create an understanding between both age sects, showing the perspective of each side and trying to allow understanding on all sides.
The film does however have faults in terms of pacing, excitement and character development. The film lights up when Ethan Hawke is onscreen, but fizzles when he is not, the story losing much of its humor and heart. At nearly three hours long, it is also stretching the boundaries of its necessity to continue. One cannot help but reason that perhaps a documentary would have been more dynamic approach at certain instances.
By attempting to create an all-encompassing picture of boyhood in the modern age, nothing really relevant happens in the lives of the characters. The film is more of a series of vignettes illustrating life lessons as gradual changes in age and circumstance affect Mason. The result is that the film maintains a very even tone and not much is risked emotionally throughout the story, the narrative teetering dangerously towards boring on several occasions. Indeed, without the charm of Ethan Hawke’s paternal character, the entire film may have been a snooze especially with its bloated run time.
Tying into this point, the film is told exclusively from the lives of reasonably well-off, family-oriented white people. Not that their lives are perfect, as is the message of the film, but by attempting to create a portrait for everyone of growing up, the far more difficult, and I dare say more interesting, lives of minorities, people without means or other socially relevant families are left disregarded. It is a disservice for Linklater to portray growing up as universal in this manner because his view is almost entirely of that of one social class.
Ultimately though, the film succeeds as a mostly engaging tale about growing up in modern society in the United States. What it lacks in excitement and strong plot points it makes up for in heart and understanding. An enjoyable if not world-changing experience.