Linklater Delivers The Goods In Boyhood

Have you ever heard of a movie that took 12 years to finish? The very idea seems ridiculous, if not downright silly. Why should an actor or a director commit to such an interminable project? And what about the issue of continuity? What if an actor dropped out in mid-course? Or died? What then?

These concerns do not appear to have bothered or deterred Richard Linklater, who spent this period of time filming Boyhood, which opens in Toronto on July 18 and shortly afterwards in other Canadian cities.

Judging by the felicitous results, Linklater’s gamble has paid off in spades. Boyhood, starring the veterans Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, plus a cast of very good unknown actors, is a delectable slice of Americana at the dawn of the 21st century.

The actors age before our eyes, developing adult voices, bodies, attitudes and desires. And it all seems so real and genuine.

At the center of the film is Olivia (Arquette), a divorced single mom struggling to provide for herself, her daughter Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and her younger son, Mason (Ellar Coltrane). When we meet them, they’re living in a modest cottage in a small town in Texas.

Ellar Coltrane
Ellar Coltrane

Blonde and attractive, Olivia can barely manage on her meager salary. So she decides to go back to college and earn a degree in psychology. Only then can she hope to land a much better job. But her plan entails moving to Houston, and her two kids are none too eager to leave familiar surroundings and friends.

Linklater draws us into their world with effortless ease, and we’re hooked. This is a family whose destiny is well worth exploring. Olivia is ambitious and smart. Samantha is plucky and endearing. Mason is vulnerable yet strong. We care about these people.

Their father, Mason (Hawke), is another reason why Boyhood is so gripping. Back from a job in Alaska, he’s ready to settle down in Texas and be there for his children, who have missed him. Chatty and affable, he wants to remind them of the fun they had before his marriage broke up.

As the film moves forward, Olivia remarries. Bill, her new and considerably older husband, was one of her college instructors. Linklater doesn`t delve into the details of their romance. He presents it as a fait accompli. At first, the blended families are a picture of domestic bliss, but as time goes on, Bill`s darker side emerges. “Bill has his good qualities,” says Olivia. But neither Mason nor Samantha like their stepfather.

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane
Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane

Olivia’s decision to leave Bill upsets her children. Once again, they feel uprooted and displaced. Their biological father is their saving grace. He’s a source of stability and a fount of optimism. He and Mason plant Obama-Biden signs on lawns. They go bowling. They bond on a camping trip. And in an excellent scene every parent will surely appreciate, he tells them about the birds and the bees, much to Samantha’s acute embarrassment.

Boyhood unfolds against the backdrop of the war in Iraq, and Linklater makes no attempt to conceal his disdain for George W. Bush’s interventionist policy. Mostly, though, the film is apolitical. Linklater is far more interested in drawing a portrait of a family in transition. Olivia becomes a college teacher and then falls for and marries a seemingly younger man who served his country in Iraq.

In one of the most amusing scenes, Mason’s conservative grandparents in rural America present him with two birthday gifts that run counter to his liberal values and beliefs — a bible with his name engraved on its cover and a 20-gauge shotgun.

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke
Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke

As Mason reaches high school graduation age, he develops an interest in photography and in the opposite sex. Mason’s encounters with girls are touching, and his father’s advice on the subject is sage.

Skillfully directed by a seasoned hand, Boyhood is about the pangs of adolescence and the responsibilities of parenthood. Arquette and Hawke are first-rate and Coltrane and Linklater are divine to watch as they grow up and mature in front of the camera.

It took Linklater more than a decade to deliver this affecting film. The wait was worth it. Viewers will not be disappointed.