he collective spirit of my three younger brothers James, Will and Conor comes to mind when I think about director Richard Linklater’s acclaimed coming-of-age movie “Boyhood.” I watched my brothers grow up over 26 years. I learned their inner wiring. I saw how boys preferred video games to homework and tended to rebel more than their older sister (or at least get caught more often). While school made me eager to please and excel, my brothers were more subversive. But the same pranksters who gleefully embarrassed me at church also suffered rejection more quietly and intensely. They dealt with pain and disappointment in their own ways.
Projecting your life onto a film is easy. Good storytelling has a way of stirring up memories about the best and worst of home life. But that usually happens over a glass of wine, or two, or three, and not at the movies.
But Linklater sidesteps the need for wine. His film, shot patiently over 12 years, deftly conveys a sense of male growing up. “Boyhood,” which stars Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater (the director’s daughter), and Ethan Hawke, follows the day-to-day, year-to-year experiences of Mason Evans Jr. (Coltrane). We meet him as a six-year-old in 2002, living in Texas with his single mother Olivia (Arquette). Olivia’s marriage to Mason’s charming but feckless father (Hawke) ended long before Linklater begins his story. As time goes on, Mason watches his mother take up with Bill (Marco Perella), who turns out to be an abusive alcoholic. He also grows closer to his imperfect father.
But “Boyhood” isn’t just a sympathetic portrait of a youth forced to reckon with divorce and dysfunction (a hapless mother, an alcoholic step-father, a real father who’s always short on cash). It extends beyond cliché to create a convincing representation of life’s progress — in part because Linklater, 54, allows time to play itself. Aging is allowed. Think about it: this is a Hollywood movie made over 12 years using the same cast (it sees Hawke age from his early 30s to mid-40s).
That radical choice gives “Boyhood” the qualities of a traditional coming-of-age film without having to force the narrative. We grow up. It happens. Time passes. The film moves literally from 2002 (boyhood) to 2009 (Mason’s interest in girls) to 2010 (the complications of high school), and ends as Mason prepares for college.
Mason doesn’t fight time or resist the obstacles posed by his mother’s messy personal life. A more conventional (and compressed) story would milk such resistance for drama. But Linklater’s approach allows Mason to grow up unaffectedly. He suffers, but quietly. He’s artistic, gentle, impressionable but determined. His lanky body and love of photography reminds me of my youngest brother. His passage toward adolescence triggers impatience toward anything that rings false — again like my brother, no golden boy but strong-minded.
Mason Jr. loves Mason Sr. as a best friend. He acknowledges Olivia’s penchant for destructive men. He accepts being shunted from place to place while focusing on developing his own personality.
Linklater is no stranger to lengthy narrative arcs. His Hawke-Julie Delpy powered romantic trilogy (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset,” “Before Midnight”) began with a first meeting and ended with the ups and downs of marriage — 15 years in all. But “Boyhood” is more singular. It compels you to see life through Mason’s eyes. Handled masterfully by Coltrane, who was seven when filming began, Mason demonstrates childhood’s genuinely innocent dimension. His evolution feels normal, unexceptional, and even humdrum — like life. “I just feel like there are so many things that I could be doing and probably want to be doing that I’m just not,” says Mason. Who, growing up, hasn’t thought the same?
Mason also teaches us the value of forgiveness and the need to let go. As he prepares to leave for college, the fictional build-up between 2002 and 2014 acquires a documentary dimension. Growth is real. So is Mason.
Boyhood ★★★★ Directed by Richard Licklater. With Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke.