Richard Linklater‘s new film Boyhood is a coming-of-age tale unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Linklater assembled a group of actors for a couple of weeks each year over a 12-year-span. The main character, a young boy named Mason, ages right before your very eyes, as does everyone else in the cast, including his mother and father – played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. It works.
How effective is it to assemble the same characters for such a massive project? Very. There’s something about seeing characters age and grow before your very eyes that invests you in them deeply. If I had any questions about whether this style of shooting was a gimmick or not, my answer at the end of the film was, “I don’t care.”
The film begins with 6-year-old Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, staring dreamily into the sky and ends with him going off to college. What takes place in between in between is nothing short of a heart-breaking series of regular events, that left me deeply sympathizing with Arquette’s mom role. You’re not given too much backstory, you just know that the kids live with mom and their lives are unavoidably affected by her ups and downs with financial woes, bumpy relationships and a constant quest to make a better life for her and her kids.
I had a chance to talk to Arquette about her role a few days after I saw the film. It was perfect timing, because I was still in the midst of an emotional hangover from the thing. I realized I was so deeply invested in her character; it was hard not to view the film through my own lens of how hard it is to be a mom.
After what seems to have been a painful break-up, Olivia, played by Arquette, is left to care for the two kids and provide for them daily, while Hawke’s father role drifts in and out of their lives with ease. Mason Sr. is clearly a present, loving father when he’s there – but seems to be immune to the stresses and responsibilities of raising children. Arquette says of their respective roles:
“Olivia and Mason Sr had a painful break-up and they had these two beautiful kids. She really took on the day in and day out responsiblity. In the beginning they allude to him going to Alaska and singing songs and fishing and trying to figure out who he was and he resented her for not giving him the time to do that. She resented him for – ‘Well, ok, that’s great man but you’ve got two kids who are hungry.’ You can’t just scamper off and be a rockstar. Someone’s got to be responsible for these kids. You see this resentment they have for each other and the very small cage they put each other in.”
Yes, they may both be guilty of putting each other in a cage – but Mason Sr. definitely gets a “pass.” Hawke’s character is infinitely more likable, because we only see his “best” – the loving father he puts on when he is around his kids. Since Olivia has such a larger role in her children’s lives, we see how her decisions and mistakes affect them. We observe several failed relationships and the toll they take on her kids. All the while, she remains their constant. I asked Arquette if she thought women unfairly bear the brunt of the pressures of raising children in a broken marriage – and if she thought it was unfair that her character’s choices seemed to be put under a microscope while Hawke’s seemed to get carte-blanche to do whatever. She points out the obvious – that her character was just present more for the kids, so of course her choices would affect them more. She also makes an interesting point about films and their characters:
“People make imperfect choices in the moments of our life. As an actor, you have this luxury of talking about what choice you would make. You don’t have that choice in life. As an actor you can see more what blind spot someone has. And I wanted to play a blind spot. I wanted to play that she came from Texas, that she came from this old-school way… and that’s not who I am.”
The thought of playing a character who is changing and growing while you as a performer are doing the same is pretty profound. How did Linklater know that this idea he had – shooting scenes over a 12 year span – would work? How did he know that Coltrane, the six-year-old actor he chose – would grow into a person who would still be even interested in being involved with a project like this? Coltrane is captivating and likable, and watching him grow is incredible. Arquette says of the film:
“It was a really collaborative project, different from anything else. We never had a beginning script. Rick told me in the first conversation the main things; she gets married, she gets divorced – certain aspects of things. But it was a year before each that we would talk about the specifics of a scene… We would then all come together and workshop it – and then we would have a finished script that we would shoot from… It would be different parts of life that we would contribute to this thing. You couldn’t have a fixed of the part and a fixed decision about what choice your character was making.”
Can you imagine how much each of the actor’s lives changed throughout this production? Arquette says a strange thing about watching the movie for her was that she could pinpoint milestones in her own life: “In watching the movie for me was I was also saying, ‘Oh yeah. I was sad too at that moment in my life. Oh, I had just gotten a divorce. Oh, my daughter was just born then.’”
It worked. I don’t know that I’ll ever be this invested in an outcome of a film again. Following these characters through their completely unremarkable lives is remarkable. The mistakes, the growing pains, all the conventional things we get to see these characters go through over a 12-year span makes the project totally unconventional.
Mason’s character sums it up beautifully when he says at the end of the film, “ It’s constant. The moments. It’s like it’s always right now, you know?”
Yeah. I do.