The first fifteen minutes of Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s latest and most ambitious film, are unremarkable. It’s 2002 and Mason, a floppy-haired six-year-old, lies in a field of Texas grass, his head tilted upward, eyes squinting in the sun. He fights with his sister in the backseat of the car. He flips through a Victoria’s Secret catalogue with a friend. But then, something shocking happens: Mason begins to change. His face widens. His shoulders reach a little higher. Remember 2002? When you looked too directly at the sun and picked fights with your siblings and otherwise did things you weren’t supposed to? Mason is more like you than any kid depicted in cinema: he grew up alongside you.
The central conceit of Boyhood is unlike anything previously attempted in cinema, particularly not in a cohesive work of fiction. The Up Series, a collection of short films that follow up with a group of British children every seven years, is the only similar work I can think of, though as a documentary it doesn’t really compare. Filming an 11-year story-arc would take most directors a few weeks. Linklater took 11 years, reconvening his cast and crew for two weeks each year in order to create an authentic portrait of the way a person changes throughout adolescence (as well as the way people around them change). But Boyhood is more than a clever premise. The film is anchored by strong performances that elevate it from a collection of chronological snippets to something startlingly real.
Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, Boyhood’s boy, as he matures from first grader to college student. Watching Coltrane age is so natural and moving that it makes the practice of casting various actors to play the same character at different ages seem ridiculous by comparison. Mason’s father, played by Ethan Hawke, undergoes an extended boyhood of sorts, meandering through life without much focus or maturity. Patricia Arquette is Olivia, Mason’s long- suffering mother, a woman with several bad husbands who just wants to make a good living for her family. Arquette’s performance was one of my favorite parts of the film—tough in some places, vulnerable in others. Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter, rounds out the not-so-nuclear family as Samantha, Mason’s older and feistier sister. Minor characters filter in and out of Mason’s life—a litany of terrible step-dads provides many of the film’s most intense moments—but Linklater’s lens is always fixed on Mason, lending a clear focus to the otherwise shapeless plot.
Boyhood is an epic, to be sure, though not in the traditional Ben-Hur sense. It’s epic in the way growing up is epic—long, gradual, knotty. The scenes are short, few more than a handful of minutes long, and often mundane. Time is marked in haircuts and the shrinking width of cellphones. Grand shifts in culture are denoted by props and set decorations: an iPod, chunky and silver, a stack of Obama-Biden signs, a Lady Gaga music video. Mason’s upbringing is unique, but his cultural context is not. The timing ofBoyhood is pretty much spot-on for today’s college students. This is both fun (the thrill of reliving a Harry Potter book release) and acutely familiar (hearing adults wax political about the Iraq War).
At two-and-a-half hours, much of Boyhood floats by, most of its scenes soon forgotten in favor of the flashier stuff—a breakup, an argument, a high school graduation party. The movie comes to a close on Mason’s college move-in day, which led me to wonder where the future might take him. Then, after Boyhood ended, my own fragmented memories started trickling back. On the way out of the theater, and right before bed, and the next day, I remembered a little something from the film. That time they saw Roger Clemens pitch for the Astros. The perfect s’more, roasted on a father-son camping trip. A note, neatly folded and written in pencil, passed across a classroom and dropped on Mason’s desk.
Boyhood is not a movie you’re meant just to see. It’s a movie you’re meant to remember. To watch this film is to unspool the moments of one particular person, to recall them in a flash of muddled memory. Just as we get to know Mason, to begin to understand what he wants or how he feels, he has a growth spurt and becomes someone different. Mason seems like many people instead of just one, with ever-changing desires, ambitions, and frustrations that even he doesn’t fully understand. This rings true, truer than any movie about growing up I can recall. In life, as in Boyhood, there are no grand declarations or climaxes, few overarching themes but the passage of time itself. You feel like one person one day and someone else the next. You change your hair and your clothes and your mind, and contemplate whether there’s some kind of instruction manual you’re missing, some kind of code that everyone but you can decipher.
Mason is not your stereotypical fast-talking, quick- thinking teenaged protagonist. Though he makes some efforts to rebel (a succession of earrings, some backtalk and underage drinking), more often than not he is reacting to the people around him. Each year, before scripting and shooting the newest installment of the film, Linklater made a point of talking with his cast and getting their input. Maybe this is what lends Boyhood its veracity. The film is a record of many simultaneous evolutions: that of the character Mason, the actor Ellar, the movie Boyhood itself. Since the movie traces the exact era in which today’s young people were raised, it takes on a special kind of authenticity. It’s eerie to watch the world of your not-so- distant childhood portrayed as some kind of historical backdrop. But Boyhood never feels like it’s trying to say too much or contrive anything grand about its setting or even its subject. The movie’s great secret is that there is no great secret to growing up. Perhaps Mason, Sr., in a moment of parental clarity, comes closest to the truth of Boyhood: “We’re all just winging it, you know?”