Movies entertain in different ways. Many are meant as mere diversions; some aim to bemuse, fewer aim to bewitch. One typically considers independent films less ambitious than their studio-made counterparts, at least on a technical level. But that’s not always the case.
Take Boyhood for example — it’s the latest film from Richard Linklater, director of the Before Sunrise series, though its inception actually pre-dates the latest two films in that series. While there are no obvious CGI effects, expensive sets, or massive scenes with thousands of extras in Boyhood, one can hardly imagine a more ambitious cinematic undertaking than this. It’s hard to imagine a blockbuster director like the ADD-addled Michael Bay being up to the challenge. But Linklater, perhaps moreso than any other working filmmaker, has displayed a cinematic virtue so many of his peers are sorely lacking: patience.
Boyhood is the story of a boy named Mason Jr., starting at the age of five and following him into young adulthood, as he grapples with the usual trappings of growing up — fighting with his sister, adjusting to the new men in his mother’s life, experimenting with alcohol and drugs, a budding attraction to the opposite sex. Sounds pretty simple, right?
What makes it epic is the fact that we watch the actor age along with the character. Boyhood was filmed over the course of twelve years, with a handful of actors recurring in most or all of these segments — including Patricia Arquette as his mother Olivia, Ethan Hawke as his father Mason, and Lorelai Linklater (the filmmaker’s own daughter) as his sister Samantha. In lesser hands, this might be a mere gimmick; in Linklater’s hands, it’s basically a counterpoint to his triptych romance of Jesse and Celine, which has checked in with the paramours every nine years since 1995, most recently in last year’s stellar Before Midnight. In those movies, centered on characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, we’re startled by the ways that Jesse and Celine have changed in the near-decade that passes between films. Once so idealistic, we see that the trappings of the real world have worn them down, hardened them, perhaps even turned them against each other. In Boyhood, the gaps are much smaller. The story is continuous. And the effect is awesome.Many movies try and fake the passage of time with wardrobe and makeup, subbing in younger actors for older characters. Usually, scenes taking place years or even decades apart might be filmed within days of each other. Some films do a better job at hiding it than others, but we can always tell on some level that the transition is artificial. Here, it isn’t. These characters’ appearances shift slightly from year to year the way real people’s do — their weight fluctuates slightly, hair goes from long to short to long again, an errant mustache appears. Mason Jr. goes through a physically awkward prepubescent phase before the loss of his baby fat, and also an artsy emo phase, and he looks pretty scruffy for a year or two. We feel the passage of time more acutely here than in any other movie I can think of.
There are close-ups on cell phones, video games, and other pieces of technology that are outdated just a few years later. Pop culture references are authentic, rather than just what we remember. When Samantha sings Britney Spears’ “Oops I Did It Again” in an early scene, we laugh because we know the song was more current when the scene was filmed in the early 2000s. Audiences will benefit from knowing how Boyhood was shot over the course of twelve years, because somehow, it becomes funny the same way digging through a time capsule can be. What people wore, listened to, watched, played, and cared about a decade ago becomes quaint and funny years later.
Boyhood may share one of the stars of the Before Sunrise series and similarly chronicle the way that people and relationships change (and don’t change) over the course of many years, but it’s an entirely different animal than Linklater’s previous films — or any other movie, for that matter. It’s hard to even categorize Boyhood as a movie, because it was made so differently — in pieces. It’s like other filmmakers have been making pictures with the same set of crayons all these years, and here Richard Linklater comes along and invents a whole new color.Of course, we’ve watched child actors grow up on screen before. It happens frequently on TV, and throughout the Harry Potter series. Francois Truffaut followed the same young actor for many years, and the 7 Up documentary series has checked in with the same set of subjects for a remarkably long time. But it’s an entirely different experience when it’s all in the space of one movie, and when that movie places its focus on the process of growing up itself. There’s no sitcom laugh track or school of wizards to distract us here — this movie is about a boy’s life, and only that. Mason is not an extraordinary child; nothing that happens to him isn’t something thousands or millions of other youths have experienced. But because of the unique way in which it was shot, Boyhood hits a level of profound naturalism that is essentially unrivaled by any other movie.
The film’s star, Ellar Coltrane, is exceptional as Mason Jr. — which is a lucky break considering that he was cast at the age of seven. Linklater always intended to adjust the story to fit the young man that Coltrane would turn out to be. (Thankfully, that ends up being a thoughtful, sensitive emo type and not some dumbass bully.) He’s incredibly believable as an average adolescent — because, hey, he is one! — whether he’s taking a verbal lashing from a teacher at school, sharing the kind of stoner thinking that young men often think is more profound and original than it really is, or trying to navigate being “just friends” with the girl he thought was “the one.” He shows a penchant for photography; works as a busboy, eating leftover shrimp off customers’ plates; and eventually goes off to college in the film’s denouement. It may not sound like revelatory cinema, but it is.
As is bound to happen in a film of this nature, some segments are more captivating than others. When Mason is a young boy, he’s so passive that his older sister Samantha tends to dominate scenes as the more significant character. Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr. may feel overly familiar to those who know him as Jesse in the Before series; here, as there, he is a father who semi-reluctantly abandoned his children and pops in and out of their lives now with a new wife. Boyhood also includes multiple drunken assholes brought into Mason’s life by his mother, who has much worse taste in men than we might expect of a smart and sensible woman like Olivia.
None of this rings false, but the moments in which Mason contends with these stepfathers are the film’s most plotty, movie-ish moments, and they almost threaten to take the story and run away with it. It’s a good thing Boyhood doesn’t derail in order to explore them further. Ethan Hawke serves his purpose with adequate “cool dad” charisma, but Patricia Arquette is particularly good as the mother whose struggles and emotions are always in the background of Mason’s story — until she finally vents her frustrations in her final scene. As much as the film is centered on Mason, it’s equally fascinating to watch an actress like Arquette make subtle shifts over the course of a dozen years.
As in the Before Sunrise series, these actors had a hand in writing the screenplay, which is at least partially the reason why they all inhabit their roles with such ease. There are no cuts to black or title cards between segments to indicate the passage of time, but we always notice when the shift occurs, because each segment concludes as neatly as a short film would, at just the right moment.
As does the film itself. Given that the film ends with Mason at age eighteen, it’s no spoiler to say that the final scene depicts his first day in college — the natural point to end a tale called Boyhood. So many dramas have ended with a young protagonist stepping into university life for the first time, many of them emotionally arresting — but none have quite the punch of Boyhood, because we really have just watched this boy grow up before our very eyes. We have, in a way, witnessed his whole life. And so we share in Olivia’s pride, confusion, and grief at watching him abandon the family nest and head into whatever awaits him in the real world. (If anyone out there needs to replicate the experience of sending a kid off to college, here’s the film to do it.)
It isn’t every year that I walk out of a theater and realize immediately, That was a great movie. But with Boyhood, it was just obvious. It doesn’t entertain us in the expected ways, but it reflects life back at us in such an honest way that it feels like it’s a part of us. Even with a running time that clocks in at nearly three hours, and despite the film’s relative lack of conventional narrative momentum, it is riveting all the way through and you’re likely to feel sad when it’s over. It’s thought-provoking and quietly heartbreaking, but the audience I saw it with was laughing all the way through — not because there are a lot of uproarious comedic moments, but, I believe, because we all recognized ourselves in Boyhood. Something about the way this boy lived through the past twelve years reminds us of the way we lived through them, too. We were laughing at life itself.I can’t say for sure just yet that Boyhood will be my favorite movie of 2014, but if it isn’t, I’m sure as hell looking forward to the film that will be. As of now, it’s hard to imagine a greater cinematic achievement coming out this year. Linklater has made a lot of good movies over the past few decades, but now he’s put himself in another category altogether. He’s made a truly great movie, one that will stand the test of time and be remembered as something special. It may be too intimate and subtle to make a major impact at the box office or the Oscars, but you never know. It’s more accessible than The Tree Of Life, the Terrence Malick film that snuck into contention in 2011 despite a lengthy sequence depicting the inception of the entire universe, a puzzling and pretentious conclusion, and a brief cameo by dinosaurs. That was a beautiful movie, but this is a better one.
The experience of watching Boyhood is like flipping through a random family’s photo album. Some experiences we recognize from our own lives, while others we can at least relate to. Birthdays, family dinners, trips to visit the grandparents, graduation. The details may very, but the overall experience is universal. Boyhood is as bittersweet as life is; people enter and exit from our lives, sometimes making them better and sometimes making them worse. A child’s star rises while a parent’s is falling. A man who starts off seeming like an aimless loser can end up having it all, while the woman who appears to have it together might end up alone, wondering where she went wrong. And the end of childhood can feel like the beginning of an amazing adventure into adulthood.
I’m not sure if Richard Linklater and Ellar Coltrane are up to spending the next twelve years documenting Mason’s Manhood. (Working title.) If not, I’m already sorry to say goodbye to this character and not witness where life takes him next. Then again, Linklater has proven willing to resurrect memorable characters from the place where most (good) filmmakers let them rest. Unlike his counterparts with much bigger budgets to play with, Linklater is actually really good at sequels. Keep your endless, mindless Transformers sequels and however many times Jason, Freddy, and Michael have come back from the dead. I’ll let Mason join Jesse and Celine amongst the characters I’m hoping to see strike back.