Boyhood, Richard Linklater's time-lapse cinema experiment, arrives showered with rapturous praise, some deserved and some concocted in the sort of race for superiority that film critics sometimes engage in. Boyhood is an impressive feat, produced over 12 years with annual shoots totaling a mere 39 days, shaping a non-plot around the maturation of its anti-star, Ellar Coltrane. It is interesting even when nothing much happens, which is for most of its 3-hour running time.
Coltrane is first seen at age 6 playing Mason Jr., a child of divorce living with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and pesky older sister Samantha (Linklater's daughter Lorelei). The movie follows Mason Jr. through high school, stopping at points of his relationships with Olivia, his father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and others but few childhood milestones. Boyhood's aversion to traditional storytelling is so resolute that viewers may hope for an occasional cliché besides Olivia's terrible choices of men.
While Coltrane does what comes naturally, uneventful as that may be, Hawke and Arquette are chiefly saddled with responding. Hawke fares best in terms of character arc, from muscle car to minivan, Alaska pipeline dreamer to insurance actuary. Olivia's character is a line graph, with abrupt ups and downs. Both set aside actor's ego, allowing weight gain and hair changes to convey as much of their journeys as Linklater's screenplay.
Besides physical changes, Boyhood nonchalantly marks the passage of time by video game formats, presidential elections and radio rock, from Coldplay to Arcade Fire. One sequence is set at a Harry Potter book release party with Mason and Samantha simply being kids around other kids. It's such naturalism that sets Boyhood apart, too distantly for some tastes.
Hearing Linklater on podcasts describing Boyhood's conception and execution is both inspiring and explanatory. The nature of the production may be why Olivia's second-act husband (Marco Perella) is the movie's glaring flaw, an underwritten and over-the-top performance that's everything Boyhood is trying not to be. This can't be rationalized as a child's point of view. It is more likely a misstep that couldn't be corrected on the fly. Linklater simply refines the boor role the next time Olivia hooks up.
Linklater says everything hinged upon the boy selected as the movie's compass, the reason anything would happen. He didn't exactly hit the creative lottery. Coltrane is an appealing child, then a precocious tween with camera appeal but edging closer to manhood siphons his personality, in an acute case of the cools. Still worth observing yet less compelling. Near the end, Linklater allows three telltale remarks by his actors: "What's the point?" "We're all just winging it," and "I just thought there would be more." Indeed.