Can you remember those long-ago summers, when the cicadas buzzed in the trees, and there was nothing to do but lay on the grass and contemplate existence? Or perhaps less hazy (or ... more than likely more hazy) are the high school summers, when you'd walk to the park with your friends and the pilfered beers in your backpack would clink-clink-clink the whole way there.
No matter if you actually remember specific details -- it's all in the feeling, and director Richard Linklater's latest movie, "Boyhood," brings it back in a rush. As you probably know by now, the film was shot over 12 years, using the same actors from beginning to end. Starring Ellar Coltrane as the main character Mason, and Linklater's own daughter Lorelei as Mason's sister Samantha, we the audience can witness both children grow from five- and eight-year-olds into young adults in college.
The magic of "Boyhood" is three-fold: one, as we watch, we can't help but recollect all of our own childhood memories. Nostalgia is heavy in the film, from the music to the fashion to the language, and witnessing the slow creep of cell phone ubiquity or seeing Mason attend a "Harry Potter" book premiere set off nostalgic firebombs in the back of my brain.
But it's not just the big things. The second masterful element about "Boyhood" is Linklater's refusal to focus on the obvious. We're talking about a movie that takes place over the '00s, a very volatile decade. Linklater could have easily focused on 9/11 and any other big-ticket events of the era, thereby heightening the drama and studying how pop culture influenced Mason's upbringing. Instead, Mason merely exists in the time, and rather than have society at large as his growth catalyst, it's the little events that frame his life: going bowling with his often-absent father and sister, drunken abuse at the hands of his multiple loser stepfathers, underage drinking with his friends, his first job. Ringing any bells?
And that's the third component of "Boyhood" which makes it a masterpiece -- the universality of it. This movie could have been called "Girlhood," "Motherhood," or "Fatherhood." As I was watching the film, a mother of two (and friend of mine) was sniffling and dabbing her eyes with a Kleenex as Mason heads off to college; her son was graduating from high school the very next day. It's not just about the boy growing up and moving on, it's also about Mason's mother (Patricia Arquette) accepting that she's now an empty-nester. It's also about Mason's father (Ethan Hawke) understanding his role (or lack thereof) in his son's life. In short, "Boyhood" has something for every person to identify with.
As if that weren't enough -- a movie that hits on all levels with most people -- there are underlying themes constantly being explored and dissected, but not solved. Linklater draws an outline and then leaves the rest to us on politics, on psychology, evolving technology, and of course, music (one of his passions). Thank goodness he doesn't delve too deep, because the political diatribe scenes (featuring a faux-irate Hawke) are easily some of the weakest. I'd rather have the scene where Hawke instructs his children to grab McCain/Palin election signs off their neighbours' lawns and shove them in his car's trunk -- that says more to me than a spelled-out lecture on Democrats vs. Republicans.
So are Hawke and Arquette good in their roles? It's a definite yes. Neither of them is particularly stand-out, but I don't think they're supposed to be. They're ultimately bit players in the lives of Mason and Samantha, who steal their scenes with aplomb, and sometimes, it seems, unintentionally. I'm fortunate to have both an older sister and a younger brother, so I can speak from experience: this is what it's like. But as parents, both adult actors are sufficient, each of them adding a poignant scene with Mason towards the end of the film.
After screening the movie, I had the desire to throw on some old clothes and go run through a sprinkler or play Capture The Flag with the neighbourhood kids. Linklater's other nostalgic film, "Dazed And Confused," touched a nerve, and "Boyhood" does the same. There are also echoes of his "Waking Life" in some of the dialogue. Expect this movie to be as well-regarded in the movie pantheon as its predecessors, and expect an Oscar nod for Linklater.
Just as each childhood is a compilation of memory and experience, so is "Boyhood." Not to be overly simplistic or cliché, but every life is different, yet universally the same.
"Boyhood" opens in select Canadian theatres on July 18. It is already screening in the U.S.