Of all the achievements in Richard Linklater’s career, perhaps what he will be best remembered for is his depiction of time. Dazed and Confused chronicled teenage life with precision, but his Before trilogy showed how the passage of time shapes and changes people in ways that they can’t see, precisely because they’re on the inside, lacking the necessary perspective easily available to us on the outside. Now with Linklater’s new movie, Boyhood, time is examined in a new, incredibly moving way. As is Linklater’s custom, Boyhood is profound in such a casual way that its weighty themes feel nonchalant, effortless. This movie might make you cry for reasons you can’t quite articulate. You won’t be alone in feeling that way.
Boyhood has been a pet project of Linklater’s for more than a decade. It has a catchy hook: Every year or so, Linklater would gather with his cast to film the story of a young boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he goes from childhood to his high school graduation. Letting the story evolve over time and drawing on the experiences of his actors, Linklater has essentially recreated his Before trilogy, where each sequel arrived nine years later, in the span of one movie. Rarely has the slow, steady pace of 12 years felt so believable as it does here, with the cast aging and evolving over the course of the film.
There isn’t so much a plot as there is a series of incidents that chronicle Mason and his family’s personal journey. His parents are divorced from the start, Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) living with their mother (Patricia Arquette) and visited on the weekend by their loving, immature father (Ethan Hawke). Kicking off in 2002, Boyhood doesn’t offer title cards to let us know when we’ve jumped forward in time, but it doesn’t need to: Period-specific songs and incidents help orient the viewer. (Admittedly, some of these can feel a little too on-the-nose, but on other occasions they’re perfect time-capsule encapsulations of an era, like the rapturous Obama voter Mason encounters in 2008.) And there’s also the simple matter of watching Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater grow up, which creates a sense of time passing as explicitly as any external signpost.
Running more than two-and-a-half hours, Boyhood starts slowly, perhaps because the young actors are still so unseasoned or because young children aren’t inherently great dramatic characters. (In the film’s early stages, Mason is mostly passively observing his family dynamic and experiencing grade school.) But that setup eventually pays off as the children start to grow up and become participants in their family’s world. A parent remarries. Stepchildren come into the picture. First crushes lead nowhere. New haircuts are tried and rejected. Peer pressure starts to assert itself. Life keeps moving.
Because of the ambition of the project and the amount of years it covers, Boyhood might initially seem underwhelming. By design, Mason’s life isn’t particularly momentous, and there are no major revelations or twists. Instead, everything that happens is a matter of gradation—say, for example, how Mason begins to develop an interest in art or how his mother’s partners start to repeat similar patterns of behavior. These moments aren’t commented on—they’re simply observed—and one of Boyhood’s great attributes is its generous spirit. Linklater, who also wrote the script, doesn’t care about indulging in soap-opera melodrama to elevate the drama because he’s too busy being jazzed by the casual flow of life. There’s enough going on with most people that he doesn’t need to invent incidents.
At the same time as Linklater observes his characters, we observe how he has grown as a filmmaker over the last decade. The last half of Boyhood is especially rich, reflecting the period he matured as an artist with Before Sunset and Before Midnight, developing a more lyrical shooting style and adopting a more reflective, gentle tone. It’s little surprise, then, that those movies’ bighearted, inquisitive spirit permeates Boyhood: It’s not a quirk but, rather, a core sensibility, always there in his work but emerging to full flower in recent time.
As with the happiest of lives, Boyhood also benefits from good fortune. Coltrane proves an empathetic, sensitive performer, making Mason’s maturation natural and unhurried. Shooting for only a few days per time period, Linklater seems to have encouraged his cast, and especially Coltrane, to be relaxed. Consequently, the performances feel effortless, guided by the calm mundaneness of the everyday. (Special kudos also need to go out to Arquette and Hawke, who start off as the film’s stars but graciously cede the spotlight to their young costar as he grows up. In the process, the two older actors each deliver some of their finest onscreen work.)
Linklater doesn’t force an agenda or a perspective on the material, but Boyhood is rife with ideas and philosophies. A longtime chronicler of his home state of Texas, Linklater may have inadvertently delivered his definitive portrait of the state, breezily capturing its complexity and contradictions. It’s a land populated by the deeply religious and the wildly liberal, the two groups sometimes awkwardly coexisting, even in Mason’s family. Rather than mocking his characters’ differences, Linklater embraces them. It’s a testament to his artistry that we do, too.
Without even necessarily intending it, Linklater in Boyhood has fashioned a rather lovely vision of modern America, and it’s telling that Mason’s story starts a year after 9/11. In a sense, the world of Boyhood is the world the rest of us have had to negotiate right along with him. By the time Boyhood ends, no grand resolutions have occurred. Mason will keep living his life, and so will we. But by observing the everyday with such grace, Linklater allows us the opportunity to do the same. There are few better gifts a filmmaker can give his audience.
Tim Grierson is chief film critic for Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater
Release Date: Screening in the Premieres section at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival