By the midpoint of writer-director Richard Linklater’s gentle marvel Boyhood, the round-faced young Texas boy played by Ellar Coltrane has become a lanky, plaintive teenager. Already an hour or so of screen time has floated by. Linklater made the film with a core group of actors over a 12-year period, starting with the kids played by Coltrane and Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater, at ages 7 and 9, respectively.
They change so quickly, these two. As the characters become teenagers before our eyes, you find yourself wondering: What became of the younger versions? You miss them already, not because they’re extraordinary, but because they are exquisitely ordinary, which is another sort of extraordinary. Midway through, you’re struggling to remember what Coltrane looked and acted like on screen an hour ago, before he stretched out, before his voice changed, before all those hours of video gaming, when he was asking his father about the existence of elves.
Along the way from boyhood to young adulthood in Boyhood, the audience travels through the narrative with these characters, named Mason and Samantha. They weather a good deal of churn in their home lives, in between doing what millions of kids were doing the last few years. Listening to music. Arguing. Wondering if their blended family will ever really blend. Staying up until midnight, dressed as Hogwarts wizards in training, to buy a copy of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. It’s a series of eye-blinks, from lower school to college.
Everyone knows how precious life is, and certainly the movies keep telling us that, usually in a series of tidily constructed falsehoods designed for maximum extraction of tears. The plain-spoken magic of Boyhood shows rather than tells. It allows us to feel the passing formative years and the slow-drip accumulation of experience without going for the throat emotionally, without amping up the conflicts, the crises or resolutions. In the first scene, Linklater shows us Mason on a school day afternoon, waiting for his mother to pick him up. He’s lying on his back, looking at the sky. Twelve years later, he’s still looking, this time with someone next to him, on the verge of a new chapter.
When Boyhood begins, Mason’s parents are long divorced. Patricia Arquette plays Olivia, and her lack of pretense or affectation as a performer is perfect for this project. Packing up to relocate to Houston to be near her mother, Olivia—who eventually becomes a college professor—enlists her kids in cleaning out their soon-to-be-ex-house. At one point, Mason paints over a door frame, the one with all the different heights and different dates marked in pencil. The moment is tapped just so.
Mason’s father, Mason Sr. (played by Ethan Hawke), is a glamorous sometime presence in their lives. At first he seems like a write-off, a weasel and an eternal adolescent with a cool car (a GTO) and not enough money or sense of responsibility. Then, like so much of Boyhood, he changes on you, reveals new colors, adds on the years and even some wisdom. He remarries and has a baby boy; Olivia throws the dice on one alcoholic control freak of a new husband, and then another. Yet she is not crushed by the machinations of the narrative; she’s allowed some space to be a person, as opposed to a pathos dispenser.
Boyhood does without the usual trappings of coming-of-age movies: It contains no voice-over narration, no “Six Months Later” on-screen signage. When we see Mason driving a car, it’s a pleasant shock; he’s driving already? Lectured and largely misunderstood by a string of temporary father figures, Mason explores his interests through photography. Boyhood can be seen as Linklater’s photo exhibit in motion, fictional but true and honest, on the theme of what it is was like for him growing up. The movie’s unusual gestation represents a significant portion of the director’s life. He spent it well.
Linklater has capitalized on time, distance and intimate moviemaking throughout his career, notably in the Before trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight starring Hawke and Julie Delpy, made between 1995 and 2013. Earlier, Francois Truffaut introduced actor Jean-Pierre Leaud in the semiautobiographical role of Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows in 1959, and they made four more Doinel films together across the next 20 years. The heavyweight in this long-term cinematic division remains Michael Apted’s Up series, documentaries made between 1964 and 2012 following the same group of British children (now well into middle age) beginning at age 7. Perhaps by chance, this is where Mason begins the Boyhood story. It’s a mosaic of Texas life, encompassing Obama supporters and Bible- and shotgun-wielding Christians alike.
I love Boyhood, and I fully expect many people either to merely like it or actively not like it. There are moments when you wonder if Linklater’s tact can be read instead as timidity. For all the ingrained talk and examination of divorce and its ripple effects, there’s very little raw emotion expressed, even in the hairiest sequences. Coltrane and young Linklater are genial and touching screen company, but audiences should not expect dramatic fireworks from them, or the film itself. (By contrast, Hunter McCracken and Laramie Eppler made the boyhood sections of Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life a showcase for a more startling level of acting talent.)
The way Linklater rounds out Olivia’s story feels vaguely patronizing, or at least dismissive, though clearly this wasn’t the filmmaker’s intention. The idea, I think, was to remind us that we’d better appreciate what and who we have in our lives while we have them. And while we can still remember what they looked like when they were very young.
Some films fill 164 minutes with sound and fury signifying nothing. Boyhood (one minute shorter than the 165-minute Transformers: Age of Extinction, for the record) opts for a different approach. In completing this simple, beautiful project Linklater took his time. And he rewards ours.
Boyhood (R): ★★★★✩