First let’s discuss exactly what Boyhood is: writer/director Richard Linklater began, in 2002, filming a movie about a mother named Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a father named Mason (Ethan Hawke), their son Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) and their daughter Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s offspring) going about the business of simply living life. Linklater shot the movie over the course of the next 10 years, gathering his cast for a few days each year and, most remarkably, charting the transformation of the kids from round-faced little grade schoolers to college students on the cusp of adulthood as Coltrane and Lorelei literally grow up onscreen over the course of the movie’s nearly three-hour running time.
There is precedent for this kind of thing, most notably Michael Apted’s Up series, which has documented the lives of a group of real British people for five decades now, checking in on them every seven years. Linklater and Hawke have also traveled down this road to some extent with the couple in the 20-year-old Before… trilogy. But compacting a decade into one feature film and seeing the changes in the children (and their parents, as both Hawke and Arquette fearlessly show wear and tear as well) happen sometimes within minutes is both unsettling and terribly poignant. Boyhood may strike a especially powerful chord with parents who are watching their own children grow up before their eyes, but just about anyone can relate to how quickly time passes and how life seems to rush by before we even realize we’ve lived it.
There is no plot per se in Boyhood. When we meet the family, they’ve already fractured; Mason and Olivia’s marriage is over, with Olivia trying to make ends meet as Mason drifts in and out of the picture, a man-boy who clearly has been unable to settle down and take some responsibility for his life and family (that does come gradually). Olivia builds a career but unfortunately attaches herself to a string of bad men: the worst, an alcoholic and abusive college professor, provides several of the film’s most dread-inducing sequences. And we see all this through the eyes of Mason Jr. and Samantha as circumstances move them from house to house, city to city, leaving friends behind and making new ones, accommodating the latest stepfather in their lives while tenuously holding on to the relationship with their real dad.
With each transition in the film, Mason Jr. and Samantha change physically as they begin to make their way through the natural experiences of adolescence and teenhood: academic issues, bullies, sex, drugs and pop culture all enter their lives at one point or another as they formulate their own personalities and begin charting their own course. There are moments of happiness and moments of despair, but what’s interesting about Linklater’s experiment is that none of these ever reach the artificial dramatic or tragic heights of a conventional film. As Linklater himself pointed out recently at a press conference for the film, we are conditioned by modern Hollywood movies to always expect the worst – if we see that gun in the first act, we know it’s going to go off in the third (and these days, the second as well). But Boyhood is so far removed from the usual storytelling structures that the film ignores all that (it does work in references to entertainment and then-current events, but they feel natural and some provide the movie’s best laughs).
Freeing his little family from the confines of conventional film narratives does have its drawbacks: one sometimes has to find their place again when the film jumps forward, and it can be somewhat jarring when people (such as one of Olivia’s later domestic partners) simply disappear from the screen moments after you were watching them. There is also sometimes a sense that Linklater could have let a few scenes go or punched up a couple: the focus on the more mundane aspects of growing up – no big “first sexual experience” moments here, for example – gives the film a rambling quality that is can be both comfortable and, after a while, tedious. Finally, Mason Jr. becomes a bit less interesting toward the end – despite his intelligence and charm, he tends to get into the pretentious existentialism that befalls all young adults at one point or another.
All that aside, however, Boyhood is cumulatively – like, hopefully, life itself – a rich, rewarding and moving experience. Many of us have gone through or are going through the very same things that Mason Jr., his sister and their parents deal with, but we almost never get to stop and look at ourselves while it’s happening. Watching the kids in the movie grow up and seeing their parents age as the currents of time push them ceaselessly along is both epic and profound. Kudos to the four principal actors for allowing themselves to be chronicled in this way, for rising to the challenge and delivering fantastic performances. The highest acclaim must go to Linklater, an often daring filmmaker who never makes the same movie twice and who is among our best at charting the way human beings move through life. Boyhood, sometimes just as messy and off-balance as the lives it documents, may be his finest achievement yet.
Boyhood opens in limited release on Friday (July 11).