Richard Linklater’s extraordinary new film Boyhood is primarily about twelve years in the life of his main character, a lower-middle-class white kid from Texas named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he grows from age six to eighteen. But it’s also something far more sprawling and ambitious than that cursory summary would suggest. It’s a film that takes as its subject the ebb and flow of life itself, and that watches the subtle ways in which characters and relationships change over time. Linklater’s process is just as ambitious as his scope: he repeatedly brought his actors together to shoot the film in real time, which is to say over the course of twelve years.
The effect is similar to the one Linklater has used for his films with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, in which he checks in with their characters Jesse and Celine every nine years. Where those films gather tremendous power by playing with duration and delay—we as audience members are periodically given snapshots of a relationship as it unfolds over some two decades—Boyhood compresses twelve years into a single 2.5-hour-long film. By the time it reaches its final scenes, the effect has become emotionally overwhelming. In part by its having been shot piecemeal, it unfolds with a looseness and shagginess that feels alive and raw. Nothing and everything happens in Boyhood. That is to say that while it’s not driven by any consistent plot thread, it manages to capture the stuff—milestones, separations, reunions, relocations, small and large traumas, mundane pleasures, throwaway moments—out of which lives are slowly made.
Slightly less successful are the film’s attempts to root itself in the historical reality of the twenty-first century through the use of cultural references, which sometimes feel clumsily dropped. And yet it seems useless to quibble over such small matters when the scope of Boyhood is otherwise so deftly handled. It’s remarkable how affecting it is to see these characters grow up before our eyes. I’m reminded of Pauline Kael writing (in reference to The Godfather, Part II) that “there is something about actually seeing the generations of a family in counterpoint that is emotionally overpowering. […] It really is like the past recaptured. We see the characters at different points in their lives, with every scene sharpening our perception of them.” Boyhood doesn’t employ the same counterpoint structure that governs The Godfather, Part II, but it channels the same emotional weight of time and history.
The effect is intensified by the realization that we’re not only watching the growth of a boy; we’re also watching the growth of actors (Ellar Coltrane, as well as Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, playing his parents, and Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s real-life daughter, as Mason’s older sister) and of the filmmaker himself. By the end, we’re just as much in awe at the person that Mason has grown to be as we are at the confidence and mastery of Linklater and his talented ensemble. Linklater has always been generous with his actors, in many cases collaborating with them closely on his screenplays, and Boyhood is nothing if not a collaborative feat. It soon becomes clear that we’re not watching a film about a boy so much as a film about a family—one whose bonds clearly overspill its narrative frame.