If you’re easily taken by the moving image, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an unforgettably mesmerizing and mystifying journey through time, evoking a peculiar sense of nostalgia for a time and place that you’ve never actually been. I haven’t been this dazed by a film since two occasions in 2001, when Mulholland Drive and Linklater’s fever dream Waking Life left me in a trance as I walked out of the theater. For those who aren’t as transfixed by the screen, Boyhood is still a once-in-a-lifetime movie-going experience, well worth the price of admission and 166 minutes of your time (“He made it over 12 years – give him three hours!,” a friend scolded me as I complained on the way in). The movie of the year is a gutsy, groundbreaking work of art that boldly goes where no production has gone before: the Felix Baumgartner space jump of filmmaking.
Director: Richard Linklater
Producers: Richard Linklater, Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss, Cathleen Sutherland
Writer: Richard Linklater
Cinematographer: Lee Daniel, Shane F. Kelly
Editor: Sandra Adair
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Elijah Smith, Lorelei Linklater, Steven Chester Prince, Bonnie Cross, Libby Villari, Marco Parella, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villarreal
Premiere: January 19, 2014 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 11, 2014
US Distributor: IFC Films
Technically speaking, Boyhood is not the first attempt at extended-production cinema, and it’s not even Linklater’s first venture. His extraordinary Before trilogy, which will hopefully yet have more installments, was filmed over the course of 18 years and remains among Hollywood’s most intellectually stimulating screen romances. Meanwhile, Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, now in its sixth decade of production, exists as a thesis on human lifespan development and psychology that will never be matched. Even the Harry Potter media franchise, which Boyhood amusingly references, featured the same cast in its films over more than a decade. But even if Boyhood is not radical in its concept, it is unmatched in its execution, capturing more history in a single film—by design—than has ever been captured before. You’ve never seen anything like it before, and you may never see anything like it again. If this is not visionary, Oscar-sweeping filmmaking, I truly don’t know what is.
Linklater filmed his meditative magnum opus from 2002-2013, gathering the cast and crew every summer to workshop and shoot a new segment of the story, allowing plotlines to evolve each year but always toward a very specific ending. It’s hard to say what the more incredible achievement is: keeping a studio patiently waiting more than a decade for a return on its investment, or keeping a cast intact and available every summer for twelve years. Either way Boyhood is one of the highest risk/reward pay-offs in film history, a monumentally audacious production that would make even James Cameron nervous. And Linklater boldly pulled it off. He went all-in with a straight and caught a royal flush on the river, resulting in something truly astonishing to behold: a film that lives and breathes like the lives it depicts on screen, which literally flash before your eyes in dizzying, dream-like continuity.
The exceptional feat here is that Boyhood is more than a cinematic parlor trick. The actual magic is in the way Linklater seamlessly synthesizes the highlights from each year into a riveting narrative that could not have been achieved any other way (i.e., The Curious Case of Benjamin Button). Boyhood’s beating heart is the hypnotic growth of unassuming Mason (Ellar Coltrane), whose personality could be described with numerous adjectives, though few would apply both at ages 6 and 18. (At what age do you actually become who you are, anyway? One of the dozens of existential questions Boyhood poses.) Mason has an older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, daughter of the director), and amicably divorced parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). Other characters come and go over the years, as they do in life, but the world of Boyhood orbits around the shared life experience of this average family of four in central Texas. (As an aside, one of the many brilliant touches in Boyhood is the chronologically curated soundtrack to the characters’ lives.)
The ensemble acting is remarkable, the most befitting descriptor of the performances obviously being “lived in”. Talk about method acting—not only is the story semi-autobiographical (incorporating the real-life experiences of Linklater and the cast), but the actors had 12 years to fine-tune their roles. Freeing as that may have been, Hawke and Arquette in particular go a step further and enrich their characters with marvelously deeper levels of complexity with each passing year.
Arquette exhibits incredible verisimilitude in her role, maturing from a young and helpless single mother to an enlightened but hardened, worldly-wise divorcee. It’s breathtaking to compare the transformation of the characters from their first appearance to their last, but Arquette’s maturation—both physically and psychologically—is possibly the most affecting. As most of the actors in Boyhood will be able to claim, it is the performance of her life. Hawke, for his part, comes alive as an entirely different actor whenever Linklater is behind the camera, as if the director has a special key that unlocks a new level of zeal within him. Linklater’s radiant daughter, Lorelei, is likely to be the most unheralded member of the cast, but the moments she has on screen in her teen years are especially poignant (notably an awkward first conversation about sex with Hawke).
And then there is Ellar Coltrane, cast at age 6 with no clue of what it would mean for his life in a distant future (he’s admitted that he didn’t “get it” until about age 12). There is an unsettling feeling of voyeurism, possibly even exploitation, with the way the intimacies of Coltrane’s life are revealed on screen, and Linklater must be taken on faith when he claims his young actor’s life directed the production and not the other way around. I’m keen to believe him since he upped the ante by casting his own daughter as a co-star, and it’s also not as if Boyhood is a real-life Truman Show anyway, with constant intrusions beamed out to the world in real time. On the contrary, Coltrane has joked that his friends teased him for disappearing every summer “to go make a movie”. While that may have been difficult, he still enjoyed an anonymous upbringing, shielded from the trappings and troubles of being a famous child actor.
But beyond the technical marvels and the naturalistic performances, is Boyhood really about anything? Well, no, in the same way that Seinfeld was a show about nothing. There’s really no plot to summarize, but that doesn’t mean nothing happens. In actuality, small moments of significance happen continuously, the steady humdrum of everyday life that shapes us into our unique selves. Maybe I live a boring life, but dramatic, life-changing developments don’t happen every day, or even every week, and they’re always bigger in the eye of the beholder (in Boyhood, a haircut is a momentous occasion). Family conflicts and crises arise when you least expect them, and though the decisions you make today can have serious implications years from now, they aren’t always so dramatic in the present moment. Grounded stories like this resonate on an intimate level with us because we see parts of our own experiences on screen in measured realism, without the histrionics typically offered in movies and on “reality” television.
Linklater has explained that the real character in Boyhood is time—a somewhat patronizing but still perfect observation of how that invisible entity influences the actual human characters at the most elemental level. In Boyhood, time simply flows without any markers, and suddenly Mason and his family wake up 12 years later and everything is different, but it’s all still the same. The years blend together and fade away behind them like driftwood on the river of life, and they can’t always pinpoint how they changed course on that river, or when. The Before trilogy brought this concept to life thoughtfully, whereas Boyhood brings it to life literally. Indeed within Linklater’s canon, Boyhood is much closer to the Before films, or even Waking Life, than it is to Dazed and Confused. It’s a coming-of-age story that turns the genre on its head by illustrating through a diverse range of characters that you never come “of age”. You only become who you are, and always faster than you can understand.