Ever since critics started talking about it, I have been eager to see Boyhood. It can take a while sometimes for such films to get here, but it finally did this week. so I spent yesterday afternoon watching Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) grow up. It's a rather long film. Does growing up have to take so long? But, length aside, it remains engaging throughout.
What is so distinctive about it, of course, is how the movie was filmed - director Richard Linklater's 12-year project - not using different actors to play the boy at different ages but filming it (indeed, actually writing it) a few scenes at a time over 12 years and so actually letting Mason grow up on screen. The result is quite impressive, as Mason changes physically and develops emotionally and intellectually into a young adult right before the audience's eyes. The other characters, of course, also change and mature (or not) in their own ways. At one has to remind oneself throughout the this is a fictional story, not some "reality" show following a real family through its decade and more of travail.
The film begins in 2002 when Mason is a boy of 6 and ends with an 18-year old young adult going off to college. In the interim, Mason's dysfunctional family moves several times, breaking contacts and relationships in a way which would certainly have been very hurtful in any real life - and may account for Mason's maturing focus primarily on living in the immediate moment.
Almost as interesting as Mason is his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), who combines a determination to make something of herself and care for her family with consistently poor taste in men. She and Mason's father, Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke) are already separated when the film starts. Over time she remarries twice. Each new husband seems likeable at first meeting, but turns out to be an alcohol-fuelled problem from which the she and the family need to escape (quite literally in one case). Despite her success in becoming a college professor, her personal failures continue to weigh on her. Hence her poignant final scene with Mason when she breaks down in tears, wondering what she has left of her life now that her children have grown up and gone - perhaps a not that uncommon emotion when facing the proverbial "empty nest."
Mason Senior is a sometime musician, sometime whatever work he can get, kind of guy - not the most responsible parent or role model, but well-meaning and engaged. In a sense, he also grows into manhood along with his son, as he eventually settled into a more mature relationship which will give him a chance to start over again (and presumably do better) with a new son. Whatever their faults, both parents genuinely love their children.
As Tolstoy said, unhappy families are all each unhappy in their own way. The film is strongest when it gets beyond the specific dysfunctions of a particular family in a particular time and place and penetrates the unique experience (shared by half the human race) of being a boy and growing by fits and starts into a man, a complex process every boy has to go through simultaneously on his own and with his generational cohort. (That said, the dysfunctions of Mason's family do in fact also capture the sadly deteriorating state of marriage and family life in contemporary US society. The almost matter-of-fact way in which the various traumas the family experiences are treated testifies dramatically to how routine certain situations have become, situations that decades ago would have been thought exceptional and seriously problematic.)