Movies don't always have to have dramatic plot points or a perfect story arc to make them compelling pieces of cinema. As Richard Linklater's new film "Boyhood" proves, sometimes a modest life is even more profound.
Shot over a 12 year period, Linklater cast an unknown 6-year old Ellar Coltrane as the audience surrogate; a boy named Mason. Through Mason's eyes we are witness to the evolution of a family, and how that changes him from boy to man. His family consists of mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) who is raising both Mason and his older sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei). Their lives are complicated and sometimes difficult, but the love of their mother keeps them together.
On the outskirts is their rarely-seen traveling father, Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke), who remains mostly absent --until he shows up and announces he's staying somewhat close by. The family goes through a number of surprisingly common life travails, such as parents remarrying, alcoholism, sexual awakenings, and misguided parenting. What makes it unsurprising is that it is all seen through Mason in a riveting 12-year performance by Coltrane.
Linklater is a master at making everything seem so realistic it's like watching a documentary. He allows his actors to simply be and doesn't get in their way. This is how he wanted the movie to be, and throughout the twelve year production he allowed for collaboration and growth. There was no specific script in place. He wanted the character's lives to be what life was: Unexpected, surprising, challenging, and hopeful. It was about appreciating the flashes of time that so often get forgotten as the pace of life carries us forward.
Oftentimes, the movie is as funny as it is simple. The joking of a father to the two kids he has dragged to a bowling alley gives us exactly what we need to know about the three characters in the most unassuming of ways. A casual glance by Mason at his mother speaking with a college professor shows us that even at a young age, children are aware of the world around them -- even if they don't always understand it. These are the moments that speak loudest in this one-of-a-kind film. There are no sudden deaths or plot twists. It's just life as it unfolds in all its casual glory. There are a few moments that surprise and remind us that actions we take can have impact on other people. But what it does best is that is makes us look at a family from all angles, not just singularly the angle of the child or the parent. We see the family as a whole, even though we experience it mostly through Mason's gaze.
As much as Coltrane is a revelation, Hawke and Arquette are exceptional. Hawke gives the strongest performance, and it won't be a surprise if he gets an Oscar nomination. But Arquette, while not always having the showiest of roles, is pristine at portraying a struggling mother trying to balance her duties as a parent with those of a woman with her own wants and needs. All three deserve recognition and quite frankly, the film should be a surefire Oscar contender for Best Picture, if not the winner.
At 164 minutes long, you'd think that without over-the-top drama the film might be a drag. Far from it. Just watching the actors age before us is fascinating on its own. But observing these same people and this one family live and grow and evolve is astounding in its uncomplicatedness.
You can watch "Boyhood" as simply a film experiment that worked. But you can also see it as a heartbreaking, gratifying, and meditative look at how we experience life. In a way, this film is a gift. It inadvertently causes us to look back at our own lives by creating a film in our heads; full of the good, the bad, and the indifferent. And as you watch each stage of this family's journey float by, it is the quiet moments of your own life that suddenly knock at your soul.
This is what makes watching "Boyhood" not just a about seeing a wonderful film, it makes it about experiencing one.