Of all the impressive things about Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and they are legion, one of the most extraordinary is how the film was able to be crafted into something that will be able to connect with just about anybody who watches it. The title, while accurate, is a bit limiting. This isn’t just a movie about a kid growing up, albeit one with a heck of a hook. Boyhood is ultimately about time itself, and Linklater wisely dodges the usual coming of age clichés by focusing on everyday events rather than major life events. It does not advertise its leaps forward through time. For instance, one moment that has stuck with me is a post-time jump scene in which our hero Mason (Ellar Coltrane) returns home late one night, visibly drunk, smoking pot and making out with a nameless girl in the back of his friend’s car. Other coming-of-age movies would show us how Mason matured to this point, but in this case it just happens and we are meant to accept the change. In Boyhood, there is no time to stop and explain. Life moves too quickly for that.
The story of Boyhood‘s production has been well documented. Linklater began filming in 2002, and for his cast he pulled together Coltrane as Mason, his daughter Lorelei Linklater as Mason’s sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as their mother Olivia, and Ethan Hawke as their father Mason, Sr. He brought the gang back together for a couple weeks every year from 2002 to 2013, documenting the physical and emotional growth of both the actors and his characters. It’s a flashy premise, and simply watching actual people grow up on screen is fascinating enough on its own. Just getting this thing done is a heck of a feat, and if most filmmakers pulled this off they’d probably use the finished product to flaunt the ambition of the production.
That is not what Linklater does, and that winds up being precisely the point. If you did not know about how the film was made going in, it might take a while for you to catch on. Everything flows together with such purpose and meaning. Transitions may happen unexpectedly, but Boyhood is explicitly about how time can flow by without ever really noticing. You can’t feel the years going by while you’re living them, and only when you look back do you realize how much time has passed. Likewise, Boyhood’s impact only increases upon reflection. There aren’t many “big” moments within the text of the film, but the cumulative effect is incredible. When the credits roll, the enormity of all the audience has seen begins to wash over them.
Certain moments may not entirely work, but that feels like complaining about a scuff mark on the Statue of Liberty. The entire thing was essentially made up on a year-by-year basis, and watching Linklater feel everything out over the course of the 12 years is part of the project’s fascination. The most common complaints seem to revolve around the two stepfather characters that are introduced over the course of Mason’s adolescence. The scenes involving the first stepfather are incredibly well-performed, and admittedly powerful, but they don’t quite seem to fit with what Linklater does with the rest of the film. The second stepfather feels truer to the soul of the film, but it overlaps a bit too much with what we’ve already seen. I understand what Boyhood is getting at with these characters, but they just feel ever-so-slightly out of step with all the film’s best moments.
Even so, nothing comes close to derailing what is otherwise a staggering achievement. The passage of time is something Linklater has already explored in his excellent Before… trilogy, but this is a whole other beast entirely. Those films felt like occasional check-ups with Hawke and Julie Delpy, and we had the privilege of peeking in to see what the characters were up to. Boyhood is like watching all the moments that come in between such check-ups. In both instances, Linklater is less concerned with the external passage of time as he is in the internal passage of time. He is so focused on his characters and their connections to each other, and he watches as time either strengthens or erodes these bonds. Supporting characters drift in and out of Boyhood with regularity, but every arrival and departure rings true. In fact, when one very minor character makes an unexpected return later in the film, it feels a bit contrived, though it admittedly works on an emotional and thematic level.
As I mentioned at the start of this post, Boyhood will hold significant power even for those who don’t immediately relate to the story of a white boy growing up in Texas. The focus is very much on Mason’s journey, but Linklater is also able to depict the effect his growth has on all the people around him. Older generations will likely find themselves watching these events from a parent’s point of view, while younger viewers will jump right to the kids. Of course, as these younger viewers grow up and revisit the film they may find their sympathies drifting elsewhere. This all speaks to how fully-realized the film is, and I’m positive that the discussion surrounding the film will continue to evolve in the years to come. It might have taken 12 years to make, but Boyhood’s life is just beginning.