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The big bet pays off in Boyhood, much like the risks of early life: making friends, changing the way we think and look, the things we do. When director Richard Linklater pitched the now mythic idea of the film — to follow the same cast for 12 years, including, crucially, one boy from ages 6 to 18, to create a stretching fictive study of childhood — “People would ask, ‘So what happens?’” Linklater told the New York Times. “And I’d have to say, ‘Not much.’” He had to hope that the cast would stay together and find a producer (the surely vindicated Jonathan Sehring of IFC Films) willing to wait out 12 years before seeing any potential return onthe investment. He had to trust that his leading boy, Ellar Coltrane, would end up an interesting, compelling, and challenging young man and actor. Linklater bet it all on time and Coltrane, not knowing, as with childhood, where he would end up. Only now have the film’s production and creation become a bankable story, drawing audiences by the bunches and almost universal acclaim. Time, and stories about time, have this effect on us.
But no film so totally mixes time and effect like Boyhood, roiling up the gorgeous, almost ineffable experiences of modest, ordinary moments: being teased by your sister, riding your bike, moving to a new town. Reviews and commentary have mentioned Michael Apted’s documentary Up series, François Truffaut’s Adventures of Antoine Doinel, Linklater’s own Before trilogy, and Michael Winterbottom’s underseen Everyday, but Boyhood is a film apart, opening all its windows to the winds of a 12-year production, whatever they may bring. The other films or series are propelled or aged by time, but Boyhood lives within it.
The film opens with six-year-old Mason (Coltrane) staring up at the clouds. From this first shot of his still-babyish face, the camera will almost never leave him — until the film ends, much as it began, with an 18-year-old Mason looking off into the sunset. As we leave him, Mason’s life is still a warren of possibilities, except now we’re more hopeful, more excited for his next steps. At the start, we had only our plain optimism for a boy dealing with his bossy older sister (Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the director) and the reality of their parents’ divorce.
Coltrane is a natural, easy talent, sensitive-eyed and adolescently knowing. We want to follow this young man. His mother, Olivia, loving and responsible, is played with dug-in realism by Patricia Arquette as she confronts decisions that pull her between herself and her family, her needs and those of her kids — almost, but not quite (as in real life), one and the same. Along with her bad luck with husbands, she accumulates advanced degrees. By comparison, Mason’s father (Ethan Hawke) is a slackerish bohemian who possesses a genuine, if scattered, love for his kids. Arquette’s and Hawke’s quiet, easy acting lends the film a magnificent realism. Lorelei Linklater doesn’t deliver as convincing a performance, but she’s more than made up for by the rapport of this fictional family.
Across the years, we follow the kids through school days, weekends with their father, multiple moves, multiple step-fathers, multiple hair cuts. Time movies eerily, like the lapping of a tide. Early on, Mason doesn’t change much, but then the baby fat melts and he bolts up tall and starts going to parties, talking to girls. Linklater allows the years to simply move by, often imperceptibly. Marriages come and go without any wedding or divorce scenes. Life, in Linklater’s handling, is ordinary, flowing, and precious. Where did it go?
Boyhood has a cousin in another Texas-set film about family and the mysteries of growing up: Terrence Malick’s grand, sweeping The Tree of Life. But Boyhood moves in an approachable, earthbound register. Modestly shot and told, its moments hang with a quotidian, unaffected realism. There are no grand deaths or addictions. We don’t see Mason lose his virginity. What we view are the ordinary things that we so often carry with us, the climb up the mountain defining us as much as, if not more then, the peaks of our milestones. At the end of Boyhood, on the cusp of college and something else, Mason has a whole life still ahead of him. It’s universal and utterly his own, like this film.