Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater and Ellar Coltrane in “Boyhood”/Courtesy IFC Films
Although nearly a week has passed since I saw Richard Linklater’s moving twelve-years-in-the-making masterpiece, I’m still thinking about “Boyhood.” As myriad reviewers can attest, it is as close to perfect as any film, and so compelling that its two hours and twenty-four minutes fly by.
Yet unlike plot-driven movies, “Boyhood” has none of the conventional elements: no inciting incident, no climax, no three-act structure. (Take that, screenwriting teachers.) Rather, the film is a compilation of many small and large events that in aggregate become something huge: Life. And not just the life of the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), but that of his father (Ethan Hawke), mother (Patricia Arquette), sister (Lorelei Linklater), and numerous friends and relatives. (Spoiler alert: if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know what’s in it, don’t read further.)
Arguably, the character who undergoes the greatest change in “Boyhood” is not Mason Evans, Jr. but his mother, Olivia. When the film begins, she is a young single mother of two small children. Her ex-husband has been absent for nearly a year, and she is struggling to make ends meet. Soon after he returns from Alaska, she moves the children to Houston so that she can finish her college degree and better her job prospects. By the time Olivia is in graduate school, she has married one of her professors, creating a blended family with his two children. But when the marriage ends because of his alcoholism and abusiveness, Olivia must move the children again–this time for safety’s sake. By then a professor, she falls in love with an older student, an Iraq War veteran studying on the GI bill. But that marriage founders too, as her once charming new husband becomes a sullen prison guard who drinks too much. At the end, when Mason leaves for college, Olivia is on her own–older, wiser and a little tearful as she faces an empty nest. But there’s never a doubt she’ll triumph over this new phase of life, just as she has all the others.
Three divorces in two decades is a lot to endure, but Linklater never paints Olivia as less than a responsible, loving parent. (The feckless one is Mason, Sr., with his absences and seatbelt-free GTO, though in time he too grows up.) And although Mason once refers to his mother’s husbands and boyfriends as “a parade of drunken fools,” he is unembittered and loving toward her throughout his eighteen years.
Among the many revelations of “Boyhood,” is Richard Linklater’s genius as a filmmaker. Regardless of whether we’ve shared the Evans family’s experiences, he somehow manages to make them familiar–so much so that we feel they might have been ours. In following this ordinary family’s progress through life, he shines a mirror on our lives too.