Growing up is neither easy nor enjoyable most of the time, particularly as a boy at the dawning of the twenty-first century. Richard Linklater quite literally documents this experience in his latest feature, Boyhood, an epic twelve years in the making. Although some might be inclined to think that a film that uses the same children as they grow into adolescence errs on the side of gimmicky, Linklater's story, attention to pop culture detail and distinctive dialogue style proves that this film is anything but artifice.
Following the travails of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), a boy from a broken home, as he grows up in the strange time that was the early 00s, Linklater unfolds a plot that is mundane in theory, but layered with richness and relatability as you become increasingly invested in Mason's character and his interactions with other people in his life as he grows up (often times, sooner than he should as a result of being exposed to his mother's series of replacement husbands). Olivia (Patricia Arquette) tries her best to deal with the unexpected punches life throws her way, navigating the waters of parenthood on her own for most of her children's early life. Mason's sister, Samantha (Lorelai Linklater, Richard Linklater's daughter and no stranger to being in his films if you've ever seen Waking Life), has her own set of issues to deal with, though often serves as a constant source of annoyance to her brother.
After Olivia re-locates their family to Houston to be closer to her mother and go back to school, she quickly re-marries to her college professor, Bill Welbrock (Marco Perella), as a means to form an intact family. Combining her two kids with Bill's boy and girl, the couple seems happy for awhile, until Bill shows his true colors as a violent alcoholic. The trauma of plucking Mason and Samantha from a living situation they had become so used to causes emotional upheaval in their existence that they thought they had finally evaded. Transferring to different schools, the brother and sister start over again, while still remaining in close contact with their father, Mason Sr. (Linklater favorite Ethan Hawke). Many of the cultural references in Boyhood stem from conversations Mason and Samantha have with him, especially as he discusses politics pertaining to the hotbed issues of the moment: Bush's shittiness as a leader, the conspiracy behind the war in Iraq, etc.
Other pop culture moments with pronounced attention to detail include Sam singing "Oops... I Did It Again" at the top of her lungs much to Mason's annoyance and Mason watching this once viral Funny or Die video. And, in many ways, this is what makes Boyhood most interesting to watch: Seeing the events of the 00s unfold and their subconscious effect on Mason's development. It is particularly resonant for those who are actually Mason's age at the end of the movie. The fanfare surrounding the release of the movie is, in most respects, deserved, though it does show a very specific (read: white) experience in American youth culture. And that might not necessarily appeal to everyone who didn't grow up with a white middle class background. Other than that, however, the film is worth your near three hours of time, serving almost as a cautionary tale about investing too many emotions in your children (as evidenced by the scene in which Olivia sobs as Mason leaves for college and says, "I thought there would be more").