Filmed over 12 years with the same cast, Richard Linklater‘s BOYHOOD is a groundbreaking story of growing up as seen through the eyes of a child named Mason (a breakthrough performance by Ellar Coltrane), who literally grows up on screen before our eyes. StarringEthan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason’s parents and newcomer Lorelei Linklater as his sister Samantha, BOYHOOD charts the rocky terrain of childhood like no other film has before. Snapshots of adolescence from road trips and family dinners to birthdays and graduations and all the moments in between become transcendent, set to a soundtrack spanning the years from Coldplay’s Yellow to Arcade Fire’s Deep Blue. BOYHOOD is both a nostalgic time capsule of the recent past and an ode to growing up and parenting.Written by IFC Films
The first shot in “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s tender, profound film, is of a cloudy sky. The second is of a boy staring up at that sky, one arm bent under his head, the other flung out straight on the ground. He’s a pretty child with calm eyes, a snub nose and a full mouth. It’s a face that you get to know and love because, even as this child is watching the world, you’re watching him grow. From scene to scene, you see the curve of his jaw change, notice his thickening brows and witness his slender arms opening to embrace the world and its clear and darkening skies.
The GTO is a minor authorial marker, and probably helped keep costs down in this relatively inexpensive production. (The movie was heroically bankrolled from the start by its distributor, Jonathan Sehring of IFC Films.) More practically, it works as an expressive emblem to go along with Mason Sr.’s absences, his careless parenting, on-and-off facial hair and earnest bohemian rhapsodies. Unforgiving observers may write Mason Sr. off as a deadbeat, but, like Olivia, who sometimes lobs expletives at her unfazed children, he’s deeply loving. These aren’t movie parents with formulaic arcs and storybook solutions, but characters whose honest, raw hurt and moments of casual grace carry the shock of the real. These are people you know, maybe people like you.
The film’s visual style is precise, unassuming to the point of seeming invisibility and in the service of the characters, with compositions that remain unfussy and uncluttered, even when the rooms are busy. When Mr. Linklater films a landscape, your eye locks not on the camerawork but on the beauty of these spaces and the people in them — the enveloping greenness of the neighborhood in which Mason first rides a bike, for instance, and the tranquillity of the watering hole that, years later, he swims in with his dad. Mr. Linklater is especially fond of showing two people walking and talking, and you learn as much about the characters’ relationships from how they inhabit space — his two-shots speak volumes — as from what they say. He’s a poet-geometrician of intimacy.
Radical in its conceit, familiar in its everyday details, “Boyhood” exists at the juncture of classical cinema and the modern art film without being slavishly indebted to either tradition. It’s a model of cinematic realism, and its pleasures are obvious yet mysterious. Even after seeing the film three times, I haven’t fully figured out why it has maintained such a hold on me, and why I’m eager to see it again. There are many reasons to love movies, from the stories they tell, to the beautiful characters who live and die for us. And yet the story in “Boyhood” is blissfully simple: A child grows up. This, along with the modesty of its physical production — its humble rooms, quiet moments, ordinary lives — can obscure Mr. Linklater’s ambitions and the greatness of his achievement.
It’s no surprise that watching actors naturally age on camera without latex and digital effects makes for mesmerizing viewing. And at first it may be hard to notice much more than the creases etching Mr. Hawke’s face, the sexy swells of Ms. Arquette’s belly and Mr. Coltrane’s growth spurts. You may see your own face in those faces, your children’s, too. This kind of identification is familiar, as is the idea that movies preserve time. André Bazin wrote that art emerged from our desire to counter the passage of time and the inevitable decay it brings. But in “Boyhood,” Mr. Linklater’s masterpiece, he both captures moments in time and relinquishes them as he moves from year to year. He isn’t fighting time but embracing it in all its glorious and agonizingly fleeting beauty.
Audiences might think they’ve seen this kind of coming-of-age story before. But they’ve never seen a film like “Boyhood,” which in the hands of writer-director Richard Linklater turns from classic cinematic portraiture into something epic, transcendent and monumental. Filmed for a few days every year over 12 years, “Boyhood” breaks open a brand new genre: a fictional drama contoured and shaped by reality; a lightly scripted ensemble piece executed by both professional and non-professional actors; an experiment in time, narrative and cinematic practice that utterly transforms the boundaries of what film can look like and feel like and achieve.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about “Boyhood” is that it draws no attention to its own lofty ambitions. Working in his signature style of observational understatement, Linklater simply allows viewers to eavesdrop and watch, unnoticed, as Mason and his family go about their daily business. But within that simple premise, Linklater discovers multiple emotions and meanings, the film equivalent of a world in a drop of water.
When “Boyhood” opens, 6-year-old Mason — dreamy, easily distracted, watchfully quiet — is being harangued by his mom, Olivia (played by Patricia Arquette), about his behavior in school, while his bossy older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter), annoys him by singing Britney Spears over and over. When Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) shows up from working in Alaska, he comes bearing gifts and the loosey-goosey aura of the circus coming to town. But as “Boyhood” progresses, Dad begins to embrace fatherhood more seriously. One of the film’s most touching and funny scenes occurs in a bowling alley, where the hapless father tries to engage Mason in a just-buds chat about the facts of life (“We can do this!”).
Indeed, much of “Boyhood” has to do with how Mason becomes a man — under the tutelage of his own childish but earnest father, by watching the problematic men his mom becomes involved with, and even within the context of the sexist, epithet-laden rhetoric of his peers. By the time Mason, now a deep-voiced teenager, affects an earring, blue nail polish and an artistic interest in photography, viewers get the feeling that he’s dodged at least most of the misogynist conditioning of a boy’s life.
Coltrane, a non-professional from Linklater’s adopted hometown of Austin, is the clear star of “Boyhood,” but Hawke and Arquette’s performances are among the finest in both of their careers: In many ways, the movie is as much about their characters’ changing self-conceptions and complicated relationship as it is about Mason’s own blink-and-you’ll-miss-it youth.
Because it was filmed in real time, “Boyhood” organically reflects the material culture and political touchstones of the ’90s and early 2000s — the Iraq War, the Obama-McCain campaign of 2008, Harry Potter. Over time, the music changes from Spears and Weezer to Cee Lo Green and Daft Punk, becoming a vividly compressed time capsule of social history, tastes and pop signifiers. But mostly, “Boyhood” is about someone finding himself — or, perhaps more accurately, a self finding him. Linklater took a chance on casting Coltrane as a 5-year-old, there being no guarantee that he would be as cute or charismatic as an awkward college freshman. Luckily, he’s watchable at every age, encountering milestones big and small with watchful, reflective intensity.
Some of those milestones are obvious, such as the 15th birthday when Mason receives a Bible, a blue suit and a 20-gauge shotgun from his family. But most are small — those fleeting, quotidian interludes that no filmmaker other than Linklater would deem worth noticing, let alone valorizing as worthy of narrative attention. Like his fellow Austinite Terrence Malick, Linklater is interested in philosophical questions about time and family and identity and consciousness. But unlike Malick’s similarly themed “Tree of Life,” “Boyhood” is free of fussy auteurist gestures and self-conscious grandiosity.
What makes Linklater great is that he possesses the modesty and confidence to simply observe banal, otherwise forgettable non-events, then invest them with scale and sweep and deep significance. As a film that dares to honor small moments and the life they add up to, “Boyhood” isn’t just a masterpiece. It’s a miracle.