Shot over the course of twelve years of a boy’s life, Boyhood is a logistical triumph. It has solved my problem with the coming-of-age story: interchangeable actors playing a single character over the course of their life. Here, all our actors age naturally. This was a big risk. Everyone had to be in for the long haul, showing up throughout the years and prioritizing this work. It is clear that it was important to everyone involved as we watch every actor age in real time. Boyhood earns its nearly three-hour run-time with its compassionate focus on big life moments.
The moments are what make Boyhood sing. Artifacts of childhood tell us what is important to the boy at every stage of his life. It opens with Coldplay’s “Yellow” and we can instantly key into our own “Yellow” moment. Haven’t we all had a defining song that’s locked into our childhood? Boyhood has them for each of its characters. As he ages, the boy grows into slightly questionable and then more complex music. We get his too-cool father who’s all about The Flaming Lips and still working to dissect the inner-meaning of The Beatles library. The boy has all these artifacts of youth and they tell us everything about him.
The signature thing about Boyhood is we get character development with a genuine sense of weight. Ellar Coltrane plays our boy, Mason, and we get to follow his childhood. Sometimes we see a child actor and realize their success is a flash-in-the-pan, but what if they aged into adulthood with us? Richard Linklater provides unprecedented access to his actors. This is such a special experience, in tune with the same way Dazed and Confused (1993) brought us back to the seventies. It’s pure magic that it hides all the seams around the logistical nightmare of making this all happen over a protracted amount of time.
It’s fitting that we do not arrive at any sense of finality; there aren’t many of those in life. We get twelve years and the plotting is natural. Mason’s parents, played naturally by Ethan Hawke and a highly invested Patricia Arquette, age as well, and their paired journeys mark the beautiful transition of time.
Boyhood struck an even deeper chord on a return viewing. It is our most humanist coming-of-age story. It allows moments of darkness and cynicism to pass mostly without comment, and then moves on, realizing that a moment does not define what comes next; they are all a series of puzzle pieces compromising a larger picture. Four years out, Boyhood remains a time capsule of its generation, something that will age well and will have a lifespan far longer than the twelve years it took to produce.