Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater, follows the life of Mason Jr. as he grows from a six-year-old boy living in Texas to an 18-year-old man heading off to college. Alongside him is his single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his older sister Samantha, portrayed by Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei. Boyhood became the center of media attention after Linklater announced that he had been working on the film with the same cast and crew for twelve years. Understandably, the gimmick attracted equal amounts of praise and derision. Gimmicks are tricky for artists, as they can come off more contrived than brilliant. Fortunately, Linklater is a director who is well-versed in humility and nuance. Had Boyhood been in the hands of a lesser director, the film might have been one of 2014’s most memorable films, but not one of its best. What elevates Boyhood from an interesting experiment to one of the decade’s boldest films is how Linklater manages to convey some of life’s deepest truths in an organic, compelling way.
Every actor plays their part perfectly, never overacting, but Ellar Coltrane’s performance of Mason Jr. is especially noteworthy. Coltrane doesn’t have the look of a potential movie star, but the inherent sweetness and subtlety in his performance carries the film better than any forced sulkiness ever could. Still, it is Olivia, Mason’s mother, who undergoes the most character development in the film. She shoulders the responsibility of being a young mother of two with a mesmerizing combination of optimism and resentment. Arquette is given particularly dramatic material to work with, but she masterfully manages to avoid derailing the film’s tone with melodrama. Unlike the film’s other main characters, her character changes in much subtler ways. Although she’s always adhered to her strong principles, after finishing grad school and becoming a teacher, she becomes a person of considerable influence in her community. We can only assume that during the making of this film, Arquette herself grew as an actress and as a person. Each year she brings some of that wisdom and maturity into her character until eventually, she doesn’t need to play a role anymore. It just happens.
Boyhood doesn’t follow a strict storyline, nor does it have any larger design. It doesn’t jump from birthday to birthday, or season to season. There are no timestamps to document which year we are in. We only realize time has passed if we hear a popular song from that year, or see a cultural event that occurred in another, or notice that one character has grown taller and gotten a different haircut. The entire film unfolds like a series of short films, which allows the genius of film’s structure to shine through.
The unfussy deployment of Linklater’s time-lapse approach to filmmaking, along with Sandra Adair’s impeccable editing, allows the audience to connect with Boyhood immediately. Occasionally, the film can feel aimless or stagnant, and that’s because Linklater didn’t know what any of the footage would mean by the end of production. All of the film’s cultural references are incidental. The characters in the film, children and adults alike, are all just living life, doing the best they can for that moment. They have no idea what their actions will mean in the grand scheme of things, and if that isn’t the truest fact of life, then I don’t know what is.
Boyhood isn’t a perfect film. Coltrane’s performance as a child is unfocused at times, and the various drunken stepfather scenes occasionally fall flat. However, fixating on these minor flaws is petty, like criticizing the individual stones of a large cathedral. For a film like Boyhood, it’s the totality that matters. At its core, the film is a living, breathing exploration of time and our interaction with it. Film is unique as an artistic medium because of how it engages with time and space. Boyhood takes that quality to a new level, creating a powerful and immersive experience. The movie skips many of the milestones in Mason’s life, opting for the moments in between. In that way, the focus shifts from the turmoil of individual moments to how the passage of time changes us, and more importantly, how that change is reflected in our daily lives. Despite being with these characters for just three hours, we feel like we’ve known them the whole twelve years. Although the film moves quickly, it still takes the time to convey what life means to Mason at a particular instant, and it digs out a more substantial story from those small moments. Boyhood reminds us all that living, for the most part, happens between all of the milestones and photographs. A