Early in Boyhood, a young boy and his slightly older sister pile into their mother’s car with all of their belongings crammed in around them. It’s moving day. Mom is exasperated. The kids are equal parts anxious and rambunctious. But the journey begins. Almost instantly, the kids start fighting, because what else do they have to do in the back seat? Mom tells them to use their pillow as a divider, and then she suggests the quiet game. A successful round of that game has never been played, especially in a vehicle. The kids slap at each other in frustration. But suddenly, they start giggling, even though they haven’t stopped hitting each other. What was infuriating a moment ago just became hilarious. The camera lingers for a moment before the next cut.
Boyhood is made up of moments like this – all but unexplainable glimpses of the world as we know it but rarely see it onscreen. The movie follows the youth and maturation of Mason, a feisty young boy with a beleaguered mother (Patricia Arquette), a petulant older sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), a frequently absent father (Ethan Hawke), a succession of drunken stepfathers, and a rotating panel of love interests, friends and acquaintances. Mason is 6 when the movie starts and 18 when it ends. In between, seasons change, love comes and goes, youthful naivete turns to adolescent cynicism, and a young boy becomes a slightly older boy. Boyhood is not the first movie to tackle the topic in its title, but it might be the first to do so with the temporal sweep and technical restraint of writer-director Richard Linklater’s latest.
As with the Before series, Linklater is interested in filtering universal experiences through a very specific setting. The relationships ebb and flow with the passing of years, not in an easily diagrammed plot pyramid, but with a sense of improvisation. The camera moves fluidly, without fuss, and Linklater seems conscious of eschewing cinematic artifice as much as possible. From a filmmaking perspective, there’s nothing on the level of the virtuoso 14-minute tracking shot in Before Midnight or the real-time chronology of Before Sunset. (There is an homage to Before Sunset, though, when Mason talks to one of his female classmates on the way home from school. She’s not a love interest, and she never appears again, but their rapport recalls that of Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in the Before movies.)
Instead, Linklater leaves the storytelling to the actors, the setting and the passage of time. The movie never judges the characters for their shortcomings, nor does it want you to see any of the central figures as entirely right or entirely wrong. Mason Sr. is equal parts negligent and caring, self-centered and well-intentioned. When he imparts dating advice upon Mason during a camping trip, he’s the supportive father Mason dreams about. When he forgets that he promised Mason his old GTO when Mason got old enough to drive it, he shows his limitations. Olivia throws herself into a relationship with a sleazy college professor (Marco Perella) who turns out to have alcoholic and abusive tendencies. She had her kids too young, but she’s locked into caring for them, because children have a funny habit of sticking around even in the moments when you wish they’d just go away. She’s so committed to Mason and Samantha that she’s willing to sacrifice her own health and happiness to see them succeed. Her final scene, in which she breaks down at the sight of Mason calmly collecting his belongings and preparing to leave the nest, is perhaps the movie’s most wrenching. Had the title not been claimed, this movie might accurately have been called Parenthood.
But the kids are all right too. Ellar Coltrane is a wonder whose achievement is best appreciated in the aggregate. When Mason’s emotions turn inward as his hair grows outward, the actor taps into a well of sensitivity and loneliness that Coltrane at 6 probably couldn’t muster. Linklater’s daughter is equally impressive, particularly in the “condom talk” scene, when her face conveys a painfully perfect portrait of the character’s simultaneous discomfort and amusement.
Because Boyhood is grounded in a specific place (rural Texas) and time (the aughts), pop-culture references abound, but they’re far more than lazy shorthand to denote a particular time. I particularly love the way that the pop-culture recurs in the characters’ daily lives. Mason and Samantha excitedly pick up their copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and later, Mason asks his father if there’s any magic in the world. An innocent after-school conversation about the merits of the Jedi leads to apprehension over the possibility of a seventh Star Wars movie. Brief snippets of “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” “Somebody That I Used to Know,” “Yellow” and others serve as time markers as well as reflections of the characters’ thoughts.
I got through 90 percent of this review without mentioning the remarkable circumstances that led to this movie’s creation and completion. Linklater conceived of the film twelve years ago, established his cast and filmed a few sequences every year until Coltrane (and Mason) had grown up. He let the appearance of the actors and the tenor of the performances guide the film’s trajectory, never knowing for certain how the finished product would turn out. By some combination of careful consideration, luck and intuition, the experiment succeeded. But if you watch without knowing about this ambitious undertaking, you won’t notice it for a while. There are no title cards or dissolves to let you know that it’s time to move on to the next year. No one makes a big fuss when Ethan Hawke suddenly has a mustache or Patricia Arquette has put on a few pounds. The gimmick is that there is no gimmick. It’s a deliberate filmmaking and storytelling choice that adds authenticity without calling attention to its significance.
Boyhood is two hours and forty-two minutes long. I never once thought, “I hope this ends soon” or “Gosh, this is really dragging.” In fact, when it was over, I desperately wanted it to continue, or at least start over. This is intentional, I think. No single film can sum up an entire life, or even a portion of a life. Boyhood doesn’t try. It acknowledges that life is a perpetually incomplete sentence. Striving for profundity and never quite reaching it keeps us human. In its modesty, Boyhood is profound.