Characters in Richard Linklater movies always talk, talk, talk about topics like life itself. It’s obviously the stuff of dramatic observations, but it isn’t much like typical American conversation. Maybe your Europeans will sip espresso and discuss comparative philosophies, but in this country — and particularly Texas, where Linklater famously resides — palaver is more about laconic grunts and snappy wisecracks. That’s why Linklater’s people are usually in the throes of life-changing experiences when we meet them; they’re falling in love, getting stoned, dying, or most often, just serving time in the prison of young adulthood. This film, which took Linklater 12 years to shoot, mixes bits from all of the above dramatic situations. And the folks in Boyhood do love them some talk.
The film follows the remarkably sane Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from young boyhood — approximately 1992, when the actor was 7 — to his first day of college. Mason and his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), suffer and enjoy a series of family changes, including a parade of bad stepfathers, as their mom (Patricia Arquette) does her best to raise them solo after dumping their (boyish) irresponsible real father (the soft-voiced Ethan Hawke). He isn’t a terrible dad, but just like everyone else in this movie, he’s radically unsure what life expects of him. Meanwhile, because the movie was shot over a decade of real time, we watch Mason and his sister pass through evolving bodies and increasingly complex emotional interactions. Three hours after it begins, we’ve literally watched them grow up onscreen.
It isn’t a perfect film. Linklater stacks the deck against the flailing grown-ups, and it runs too long, though it would be very tough to cut. But Boyhood also stays with you for all the reasons listed above. We get to hear a sound not made in America enough: existence discussed with a reasoning skeptical voice. It’s moving but not melodramatic. You don’t want to part company with the kids. You want Mason to meet a nice girl and get a good job someday. And I want more U.S. movie directors to make crazy films like this, so film art here might grow up someday, too.