For most filmmakers, one of the biggest narrative struggles is finding a way to distort—or evade altogether—the depiction of the passage of time.
That’s not the case for Richard Linklater, who doesn’t just embrace the elusive concept with a profound understanding that few of his contemporaries can match, but makes it the very core of his work. We’ve seen him do it before, revisiting Jesse and Celine at progressive intervals through their lives in the Before Sunrise trilogy. But never before has Linklater captured the essence of growing up with such graceful authenticity and fluidity as in Boyhood.
It’s difficult to assign the film a synopsis. The word often implies a story heavy with construction, and forces us to condense it into a single sentence that cleanly encompasses its major events. But there are no major events in Boyhood. No “a-ha” moments, no brewing struggles that crescendo into a dramatic climax, no tidy denouements. There’s just the gentle observation of a young life and of the lives around him. I even hesitate to call him the male lead, as portraying a character seems to be the last thing the remarkably natural Ellar Coltrane is doing here. But technically, that’s what he is.
He plays a pint-sized Mason when we first meet him, grinding rocks through pencil sharpeners and collecting snake vertebrae—as any six year-old boy would. Over the next 164 minutes, we watch him become a high school graduate through snippets from his life, interlaced with those of the lives around him. The product of a divorce, Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are shuttled from city to city within Texas, following their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) as she goes back to college and stumbles through a series of toxic husbands, and reconnecting with their father, Mason Sr. (a hammy but perfect Ethan Hawke), on weekends and holidays.
By many accounts, it’s an all-American childhood, each year a fifteen-minute collection of memories: the kids reading Harry Potter in bed with Olivia. A particularly amusing conversation on contraception with Mason Sr. Perfecting s’mores by a campfire. Cracking voices. Teenage girlfriends. Part-time jobs. They’re not necessarily milestones, just moments, made special by the simple virtue of being part of life.
The years flow seamlessly, without captions of clarification or prolonged black screens that blatantly declare the passage of time, but with transitions that are more organic—a character turning a corner, a passing comment about a recent news event, Mason’s ever-fluctuating hair length. Everything is historically accurate by default, from computer models and political campaigns to the music accompanying the chapters, each tune a reminiscent throwback to its era (think Coldplay of the early millennium, up to "Summer Moon" from Jeff Tweedy's still-unreleased album). Like scribbled notes, the moments are disconnected, compiled in a cinematic scrapbook that chronicles the evolution of not just a young boy, but of an entire family. Linklater is keenly in tune with their growth along with Mason's, from Olivia’s turbulent relationships to Samantha’s middle school crushes and Mason Sr.’s own maturation from a responsibility-shunning, accidental dad to a remarried and graying owner of a minivan. It’s as much a tale of childhood as one of parenthood or even sisterhood, not a singular transformative story but the trajectory of many, each character’s arc as real as it gets without slipping into nonfiction.
But at its heart is the boy. Mason is a slight shadow of a being during his first ten years, the nonchalant background observer as Samantha steals scenes with her pre-adolescent sass. But as he explores where to stand on the vast spectrum of the people he could become, he gradually takes steps to the forefront. Glimpses of passion and purpose reveal a budding personality: a preference for photography over football. A disdain for the digital invasion of human interactions. The quiet kid, whose ambivalence we at moments worried for, has become sensitive, receptive, and a real individual, evoking a wistful pride that can only come from the unique experience of having watched both Ellar and Mason come of age before our eyes.
Some months ago, mere days before the film’s release, I attended a Q&A session at Manhattan’s 92nd St. Y with Coltrane and Linklater, the latter confessing his “extremely low standards” for what qualifies as a film; according to him, anything can be turned into a story. What was cited self-deprecatingly as a flaw is actually a rare gift: the ability to view ordinary incidents through an understated yet distinctive lens that doesn't elevate or inject them with contrived sentimentality. We appreciate them simply by watching. What would appear corny in anyone else's hands is, in Linklater’s, thought provoking and deeply touching. In this literal and figurative labor of love, he is guided by his gentle intuition to let human journeys unfold, rather than the motivation to impart a weighty message about them.
Moreover, he makes his brand of storytelling look deceptively easy, effortlessly weaving improvised dialogue into predetermined plot points that camouflage the sheer conviction, commitment, and yes, the time it took to realize this vision: less than 40 days of principal photography sprinkled over 12 years, a production conceived on a shoestring budget, shot on film, with little foresight into the distribution landscape upon its completion, and driven by the collective leap of faith of its cast and crew. Transporting us into this family’s life, the 2+ hours pass in waves of humor and heart-tugging nostalgia. At one point, Mason and a new friend contemplate the popular notion to “seize the moment,” realizing that in truth, it’s the moments that seize us. In Boyhood, those moments are fleeting portraits of poignancy, constant in their presence and their transience. Like in life itself, they melt into years that suddenly, somehow, go by in the blink of an eye.