“Boyhood” isn’t a movie; it’s a time capsule. Filmed over 12 years, Director Richard Linklater has done the remarkable and captured a life in progress. It’s the themes of every adolescent, coming of age story rolled into one journey. This is a movie that you feel you can live inside, and one that feels like it could continue forever.
Linklater’s idea seems simple and high concept on paper. Let’s make a movie watching a 5-year-old age to 18. Let’s have him deal with family, childhood, puberty, life choices, romance, sex, and let’s watch it unfold in real-time. Let’s take the adolescent life lessons that come packed into a few months, weeks or a single day in movies like Linklater’s own “Dazed and Confused” or “School of Rock” and apply them over the course of a lifetime.
The remarkable challenge though is that it’s never been done. To make a single film over such a lengthy period of time, to wrangle actors year in and year out and to take the time to watch a person grow presents enormous challenges.
“Boyhood” has an uncanny sense of self and time, one in which the machinations of the movie are as unpredictable and volatile as life itself. It remarkably captures the culture and the feeling throughout the 2000s, understanding ramifications about the movie’s present, despite the impossibility of predicting their relevance in the future. Linklater remains true to his characters and is perceptive to their growth years after their lives and the culture around them have been rewritten.
There has been remarkable hype surrounding “Boyhood”, but it’s a fact that never in the history of cinema has a movie been so in tuned to how we grow, how we change and how life happens around us, simply because never before has a director devoted as much time and patience to his subjects as Linklater does here.
We meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) at age 5. He lives with his older sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater, the director’s real life daughter) and his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). His father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) divorced his mom, moved to Alaska to find himself and has returned as dedicated a father as can be.
As for Mason, he’s a boy. Maybe he’s a little quiet, but he has a long head of greasy hair, loves arrowheads and fights with his sister same as any boy. His favorite color is blue. While playing with a friend he tags the underside of a drainpipe with spray paint. When he’s not playing outside, his mom likes to read him Harry Potter, and he’s big on video games.
Another film or another director would see this as little to go on, and practically no story to be heard of. Linklater sees a world of possibility. Mason gets older, he vividly remembers the embarrassing feeling of getting all his hair shaved off, of rolling gutters at the bowling alley with his dad or of seeing a last glimpse of his childhood best friend as the family car pulls away forever.
Meanwhile, the world continues around him. Suddenly his mother is in school and has gotten remarried. Now he has two extra siblings, a new school and a new home. Soon he’ll notice that his new father is scary and downright dangerous, but does he notice the build-up to his alcoholism that’s gone on behind the scenes? Does he know how his mother will remove them from this life in an instant?
One of “Boyhood’s” most daring features is the ease and quickness with which people appear and disappear from Mason’s life. Linklater has viewed life in 2000s Texas from the perspective of one boy, but his characters are honest and fully drawn enough to have given us “Girlhood” from the perspective of Mason’s sister, or “Momhood” from the turbulent perspective of Olivia. It’s a film that feels so relatable because just about any character can become part of this community.
But “Boyhood” feels inviting because Linklater doesn’t portray Mason’s life as a series of melodramatic set pieces. For its sprawling length of two hours and 45 minutes, “Boyhood” is a movie of modest proportions, seamlessly continuing the narrative across time periods and portraying life experiences as miniature conflicts and observations complete with humor and discovery.
While the tone is light and the cinematography is warm and pleasing, Linklater too has matured as a filmmaker since he began making the film. Increasingly the film’s style and aesthetic gets more refined modeling some of the polish and careful tracking shots he would employ throughout last year’s masterpiece “Before Midnight.” And just as many times as they move from place to place, Mason and Samantha continue to mold to the film’s surroundings.
Linklater even earns some scenes that might fall flat in a separate context. At one moment when Mason has grown into a teenager, his dad talks to his sister about practicing safe sex with her boyfriend. Both the kids and the audience snicker like he’s talking about cooties, and nothing about the dialogue feels overwritten or original beyond what John Hughes classics have been saying for years, but to have this conversation with these kids now, after having watched them mature for so long, Linklater attains an unprecedented sensation of joy and humor.
How the film remains so aware of both its past and future is a wonderful mystery. In 2002 Mason’s mom reads to them from “Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets,” and years later he’s waiting in a midnight line to purchase the sixth book in the franchise. Had J.K. Rowling never finished the franchise or had the books have faded in popularity long after the second one, an early book reading scene like that might’ve ended on the editing room floor, and any midnight attendance would’ve seemed quaint and dated; now it seems like a right of passage and a careful analogy to another boy who America got to watch grow up before our eyes.
Linklater doesn’t divide the film into years or provide intertitles about time passed. But “Boyhood” is loaded with cultural relics and clues that let us know where we are, each of which seem just as perceptive. Songs from Coldplay, The Flaming Lips, Gotye, The Black Keys and more seem perfectly in place with their time periods. Flashes of the boys playing “Halo” followed years later by the Nintendo Wii say as much about how we’ve grown as a culture as it does about Mason. And it hardly escapes Linklater to have fun with the length of his character’s hair. “Boyhood” speaks to our own embarrassing family relics while reminding us that none of it really seems so foreign.
On his 18th birthday, Mason asks his dad the eternal question: “What’s the point of it all?” Mason Sr.’s answer is as true of life at is of the movie. “The good news is that you’re feeling stuff.”
“Boyhood” is a movie about our journey as humans and the emotional ride life takes us on along the way. The point is that there are stories yet to be told, conflicts and heartbreak to experience and lives to live. Mason’s story is a small slice of the world. It’s his own life to live, but ours’ to treasure.