Above: Mason (Ellar Coltrane), age 6, in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
There are movie directors who are geniuses when it comes to cultivating actors, directors with daring visual sensibilities, and directors with a gift for storytelling, but no one thinks more subversively and creatively about the nature of cinematic structure than Austin’s own Richard Linklater. Since his 1991 breakthrough, Slacker, through Waking Life and the Before Sunrise trilogy, the writer/director has challenged much of what we think we know about film, using the most conceptually complex means to tell the simplest, most human stories.
Boyhood is both Linklater’s most daring film and the logical next step in his evolution as an artist. Shot in short bursts over the course of 12 years with a fixed cast, the film follows Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 6 until the day he goes off to college, capturing hundreds of individually minor moments that collectively add up to a portrait of a child becoming a man: the joy, the pain, the boredom, the arguments, the accumulating disappointments, the bullying, the birthday parties, the first loves, the heartbreaks. It’s such a promising idea for a movie that it’s a wonder no one has ever done it before. But it’s always been Linklater’s gift to play our own quiet little lives back to us in ways we’d never thought of before.
Linklater also has a gift for a particular kind of character: the inquisitive young adult with an artistic bent given to philosophical rambling. So it’s no surprise that it’s when Mason becomes a teenager that Boyhood truly comes alive. Before that, Linklater, who has been called a poet of the everyday, illustrates the pedestrian life of a kid growing up in Texas, but he fails to find the poetry. Moments come and go, conflicts swell and pass, relationships develop and deepen, but those moments often feel like discrete, unconnected episodes, flashes of experience that have no more or less meaning than any other. Which is fine as philosophy, but it’s the filmmaker’s job—the artist’s job—to imbue with meaning life’s seemingly meaningless moments, to give them value and purpose beyond mere relatability. So as Mason starts to become a philosophical and artistic thinker himself—scrambling to make sense of the moments he’s experiencing, and to relate them to those that came before—Boyhood finds its footing as a film. Which is another way of saying that as the boy becomes a man, as his sensibility darkens and deepens, the story of his life becomes more substantial.
Still, Mason is by no means the only meaningful presence in Boyhood. While he slowly works his way up the ladder of self-awareness and conscious experience, his parents (played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who gives far and away the performance of his career) struggle with their own growing awareness, both of themselves and of their waning place in the world. Boyhood is about the passing of time and the pain and longing that come with it—something a 6–year-old, or a 12-year-old, or even an 18-year-old is incapable of understanding. But Mason’s parents get it. They (and the actors playing them) have been watching the passage of their own lives over the course of 12 years of filming (the graying hair, the expanding waistlines, the lingering regrets) with a sense of growing melancholy, which is what makes Arquette’s reading of her character’s last line such a poignant and heartbreaking epigram for such a sweetly sad movie. On the day Mason leaves the house to go to college, leaving her to contemplate the disappointments of her own life, she says, “I just thought there’d be more.”
Boyhood may not be a great film, but there’s no denying that watching it is an experience unlike any other, which is high praise. The way it was made (an approach that could have been a stunt in the hands of a lesser director) adds echoes of worldliness and grief and joy to each actor’s performance, deepening the humanity of an already deeply human story. It’s beautiful and thoughtful and nostalgic and maddening and disappointing and boring and thrilling and confusing, in turn and all at once. Just like life.