Director/screenwriter Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" has been released by Sony as a dual format Blu-ray/DVD package that also includes a digital edition of the film. The film lives up to the almost unanimous acclaim it has received since it opened last year. It is also a front-runner for this year's Best Picture Oscar. What Linklater did was nothing short of historic: filming the same story in real time with the same actors over a twelve year period. The audaciousness of the project makes the mind reel, in terms of the physical logistics alone. Linklater had to shoot around his actor's other filming schedules, ensure that the production funds wouldn't dry up and work with an ever-revolving crew in varying locations throughout Texas. To be fair, director Michael Apted's historic "Up!" series has been filming updates every seven years for his series that has traced the lives of schoolchildren he first met in 1964. However, Apted's amazing achievements are in relation to a documentary, while Linklater has crafted a fictional, big studio release.
The film traces the life of a young boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who we first meet as a toddler. The script, which is based on challenges Linklater experienced in his own childhood, allows us to witness Mason growing up on camera through his 18th birthday. There are plenty of speed bumps encountered along the way. When we first meet him and his sister Samantha (played by Linklater's own daughter Lorelei), the kids are already the product of a single mother household, his parents having split up shortly after he was born. Their mom (Patricia Arquette) and father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) have a fractured relationship. Seems dad has been less-than-attentive to his family's needs and disappeared for a year to Alaska for vague reasons. He's now back in their lives and hoping to establish a civil relationship with his ex. She's having none of it. With their father back in their lives, he tries hard to make up for his past negligence, taking them for weekend excursions and giving them the few luxuries he can afford: arcade games, bowling and fast food. However, the kids witness the emotionally shattering experience of seeing their mother and father fight whenever they are in each other's presence. (Note to divorced parents: even if you hate your ex, don't let your kids know it. They already have enough psychological trauma to deal with.) Meanwhile, mom is trying hard to improve her kid's lives but the results are not encouraging. She has to rely on her mom to watch the children while she tries to juggle going to work and attending night classes in order to get a college degree. (The film succeeds in providing a moving look at the plight of single parents.) An attractive woman, she has virtually no time for herself and nothing akin to a social life. Thus, she is vulnerable to any man who seems sincere. She goes through more failed relationships and marriages, all of which leave her growing children in a constant state of uncertainty. The family moves frequently, disrupting whatever stability the school system had provided to the kids. They constantly have to make new friends but when they do, relationships always prove to be temporary. With the passage of the years, dad remarries and fathers a baby with his new wife. The relationship between him and their mother becomes more accepting and cordial as the kids go through the normal cornerstone moments of their lives: grade school, high school and on to college. The fact that we are watching the actors age in real time adds profoundly to the emotional impact of the story.
"Boyhood" is so brilliantly realized as a cinematic concept that you forget you are watching a work of fiction. Most of the credit must go to Linklater, whose direction is superb and whose script is written the way people act and talk in real life. The characters are sincere, flawed people who find it hard to cope with the pressures of everyday life. The kid's father is an overage juvenile; their mom is a long-suffering woman who has gotten old before her time. Every time she thinks she has found a tiny sliver of happiness, it turns out to be an illusion. She gets her degree and begins teaching at a community college where she meets an established professor, Bill (Marco Perella), who is an affable, divorced dad with two kids the age of her own son and daughter. Things start off swimmingly but over time deteriorate as he falls victim to alcoholism and becomes physically abusive. The sequence in which their mother tries to extract from the house against the wishes of her threatening husband is a disturbing reminder of what so many women must deal with in real life. The film ends with Mason heading out on his own for college dorm life. By this point, we think we know him personally, having watched him mature through the years. As played by Ellar Coltrane, Mason is an admirable and polite, if not occasionally sullen, young man who is already somewhat cynical about life and who seeks to walk to his own drumbeat. The film ends on an optimistic note, which is appropriate after suffering along with him through so many years. Coltrane gives an assured, self-confident performance and he is more than matched by Lorelei Linkater as his sister. In fact, the performances of every actor in the film, right down to the minor supporting roles, are nothing less than superb. Linklater provides them with some sterling dialogue but the film does feature a couple of sequences that feel forced and out of place. They depict the kids assisting their dad in campaigning for Obama in the 2008 election. Nothing wrong with that, but he shoehorns a superfluous character into a brief scene to depict him as a right wing fanatic who implies he would shoot the kids if they ever stopped on his property again to campaign for "Barack Hussein Obama". The country certainly has no shortage of such lunatics but the scene is the only one that feels artificial because it implies an ugly generalization about anyone who didn't support Obama. (Linklater doesn't see the irony in the fact that, in another sequence, it is the dad who encourages his kids to illegally remove a campaign sign from the law of a John McCain supporter.) It's a minor quibble but the scenes risk alienating part of the audience for a film that, otherwise, is apolitical and speaks truth to people of all beliefs and backgrounds.
The video release is curiously short on bonus extras. There is only a featurette about the making of the film in which we are treated to behind the scenes footage of the cast throughout the years. There are also extensive interviews with Richard Linklater and the major cast members that have far more poignancy than those found in the usual "making of" production shorts. The featurette has a particularly moving moment when Linklater finally shoots the last scene for the film: a sequence in which Mason is driving to college on a remote desert highway, surrounded by stunning vistas. It's moving to watch Ellar Coltrane put the finishing touches on a project that had been part of virtually his entire life. The inclusion of this segment only makes us wish all the more than Linklater and his cast had provided a commentary track. Undoubtedly, this will be made available on a future "Super Duper Deluxe" release of the film. For now, however, this edition of "Boyhood" merits "must-see" status.