By T.T. Stern-Enzi

On paper, and in far lesser hands, the premise of “Boyhood” would come across as a gimmick that would never make it past the idea stage. Potential producers wouldn’t appreciate the notion of funding a decade-plus-long project that would follow the maturation of a young boy to the edge of manhood, filming in weeklong stints each year. How could you be sure there would be enough of an engaging story, in this boy and his family, to keep up with over the course of the time period? And what about the boy? Why would anyone, filmmakers or producers, be willing to risk it all on a boy, likely an untrained performer, who might be cute as a button at five or six and then could turn out to be a petulant or uninteresting pre-teen with no desire to continue pursuing this grand experiment?

Leave it to Richard Linklater, the self-taught writer-director from Texas who ambled onto the independent film scene in the 1990s, sharing his insider’s vision of the alternative milieu in “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” (offering audiences a glimpse of the potential in one Matthew McConaughey), before embarking, with co-conspirators Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, on a quixotic romantic journey (“Before Sunrise”) that would become a full-scale odyssey in three parts – thus far – that would pave the way for the kind of expansive creative thinking that would make a project like “Boyhood” seem perfectly plausible. Having tracked the evolving relationship between strangers on a train in Europe through several life-altering stages, Linklater’s pitch for “Boyhood” must have seemed somewhat mundane by comparison.

Let’s follow a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from five to 18, as he and his family – Mom (Patricia Arquette), Dad (Ethan Hawke) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) – grow up before our eyes. The focus throughout is squarely on Mason, and Coltrane is a quiet revelation. A wide-eyed kid soaking it all in, every aspect and detail of life around him from the very start, Mason deals with the typical struggles of life any and every kid faces. He becomes a sensitive and intuitive person because there’s just an awareness in him life is teaching him something – and he’s constantly open to the lessons. This is not to say Mason is a perfect child, merely an ideal case study in casting and the luck of the draw. Linklater, in an NPR interview during the promotional tour for the release, explained how Coltrane started out playing the role, but over the course of the project, shifted into becoming something much more than that – he stopped playing Mason and became himself.

The genius at work though, which certainly involves a good bit of fortune and fate, is the inevitability “Boyhood” must grow beyond this singular character, into a nuanced exploration of the entire family and the actors playing them. Hawke, the Linklater stalwart, wanders in and out of the story, since Mason’s parents have split up and their mother is the custodial parent, but Hawke’s presence is felt throughout, even when the father is out of the picture. It is always clear Dad is there and we see him step into the role of a more stable adult figure, the kind of man he might have scoffed at becoming earlier on. 

Ultimately, it is Arquette who comes to own the screen and the story, filling in the sketchy nature of a woman, seemingly always in over her head in the game of life, but who never stops kicking. Linklater and Arquette create a loving portrait of the eternal battle between motherhood and womanhood where there can never be a clear winner. Arquette’s mom wants to do everything she can to raise her kids responsibly and carve out a degree of personal satisfaction, and by the end of the film, with boyhood over for Mason, the question hanging over the proceedings shifts subtly from him to her. What’s a mother to do, when her baby boy is all grown up?