Nothing in Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” was more dramatic to me than the voice of actor Ellar Coltrane, now at least half an octave lower than it was in the earlier scenes. Pubescence had hit him — and our eardrums out in the audience — like a ton of bricks. At that moment, “Boyhood” stopped being an extremely canny illustration of an aesthetic theory and became a movie whose conveyance of the reality of growing up became visceral and deeply affecting.
In the lives of children, after all, what is more moving to intimate witnesses than time itself, with its physical growth and emotional and intellectual development? It’s the daughter who was an infant in a bassinet one day and the next, it seems, is a mother.
And that’s the affecting thing writer/director Linklater and his actors have done here. They made “Boyhood” at yearly intervals beginning when Coltrane was a 6-year-old first-grader and ended at 18 when Mason — the boy Coltrane plays — is entering college.
Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, plays Mason’s older sister. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play his mother and father. We are subject to whatever time would do to them. Weight might be gained. Hair might be lost. Wrinkles might appear. Whatever happened over the course of 12 years happened on film.
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We, in the audience of “Boyhood,” are watching Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater enter into life’s most basic crucible and emerge from the other side intact and apparently unharmed 12 years later.
The story we’re being told is about a dysfunctional family. Dad (Hawke) is loving and likable, but immature when the kids are little. He drives a GTO, plays the electric piano and clings to an adolescent world view.
Things get troublesome when mother and father split up. She has lousy taste in men. She hooks up with and marries two different men, both oppressive drunks, if in different ways.
Actor Coltrane changes from a beautiful child to one of nature’s more radical works in progress. As he does, Mason discovers early on a kind of vocation/avocation in photography. And he discovers girls, especially one whom, in a common boyhood rite, he loses to an older boy.
In his visually beautiful ending in “Boyhood,” Linklater shows us Mason in college and hiking with a female friend. The last image we see is a stunner.
But the final line in the film — as are rather too many during the course of it — is again at the mercy of an idea where it should have trusted the images of a growing (and grown) boy to be the equal of any idea.