Rating:Is there another director as obsessed with the passage of time as Richard Linklater? His three Before films, taken as a whole, are exercises in the rite of aging, a piercing look at one couple who travel from the ecstatic throes of young love into the dangerous territory of regret and the complacency of middle age. By filming Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy every nine years, Linklater gave his Before films the sense of actual time. With his latest film, Boyhood, Linklater ups the ante by filming his actors during one year intervals over a span of 12 years.
Boyhood relishes in its unmovieness. There is no rising action, pulse-pounding climax, touching denouement. Instead, we simply see the evolution of a family over a period of time, centered on the life of the son as he progresses from little boy to college undergrad. Rather than be propelled by plot, Boyhood simply unfolds with the languor of real life, except in an elliptical fashion, as Linklater scoots from one year to the next.
When the film opens, in 2002, we meet first-grader Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) who lives with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Dad Mason (Ethan Hawke) has been AWOL for a long time, but has reappeared in their lives to rekindle his relationship with Mason and Samantha. Linklater follows the family as they move from a Texas suburb to Houston, as Olivia falls into one bad relationship after another and as Mason Jr. and Samantha live a typical American life complete with Harry Potter book releases, Astros games and the mysteries that come as we ascend from childhood to adulthood. Boyhood has been compared to Michael Apted’s Up series, and though that’s not inapt, I can’t think of a fictional film shot on the same scale with such an audacious premise.
More than a story of this singular family, Boyhood is also a snapshot of our country as it grew from 2002 to 2014. Linklater must have filmed countless hours, hoping to capture the zeitgeist as it unfolded. The sections that make the cut: Obama’s election, the rise of Harry Potter, the tragedy of Roger Clemens, and speculation on another Star Wars film, all of which unfold organically. When other films set in the past include references that prognosticate future events, it cannot help but feel like a knowing inclusion by the filmmaker. Here, the characters could not possibly know that a new Star Wars film is just around the corner and while Mason Sr. tells his son that watching Clemens pitch is like watching history in the making, there is no way Linklater or Hawke could have known what was in store for the Rocket.
Cultural references and interesting concept aside, Boyhood makes us remember the touchstones of growing up. Mason grows and becomes more aware and Linklater shuttles from one year of his life to another. There isn’t a gimmick here like seeing him on the same day each year. Instead, we simply watch as Mason’s family grows and changes. Olivia goes back to school and eventually works her way to finding a good job. Meanwhile, Mason Sr. sheds his wild ways and settles down with a new wife. As for Mason Jr. and Samantha – they simply grow up. People go to the movies to escape from real life. However, Boyhood proves that sometimes real life (or an approximation of it) can yield wildly entertaining results.
All of the actors in Boyhood are phenomenal and it’s exciting to watch how the years change them physically. Talk about commitment to art. Linklater likely didn’t have a Harry Potter-sized budget to keep his actors for more than a decade. Just like in life, characters come and go as Mason and his family move from one town to another, his immediate family the only core people in his life.
Time really does unfurl during Boyhood. Linklater has made many films since he began the project, some great and some horrible. Since he has changed as an artist between 2002 and 2014, it is impossible for all the parts of Boyhood to play in the exact same tone and level of quality. A few nagging instances keep the film from earning a perfect score, especially during the film’s midsection where Linklater himself was going through somewhat of a slump as a director.
Mason’s ascent into manhood feels like the correct closing point for Boyhood. Linklater wisely avoids crap like callbacks to earlier sections or a montage at the end to show us just how much his protagonist has grown. If anything, Boyhood exists as a reminder that life does pass quickly. In a late scene, Arquette turns in some of the best acting of her career as we see her realize that both of her children have grown up, the younger one on the verge of moving out. Like its shifts from one year to the next, Boyhood is a subtle film, one that will likely evoke a verisimilitude for those us living in the United States for the last 12 years, even more so for those who grew from boys to men during that time and those who watched those boys grow up.