Boyhood: Written and directed by Richard Linklater; with Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella
The direct exploration of cinematic time has usually been the province of avant-garde and experimental films. But it is actually present in any work of cinema, where the present immediately becomes the past, and the past is always present again.
Time is a central element in film series that follow one central character’s coming-of-age (for example, Francois Truffaut’s four features and one short film about Antoine Doinel, a character who changes before our eyes, along with the actor playing him, Jean-Pierre Leaud). We get to witness time at work even when watching the same actor in different movies that are not about the same character: film might provide us with the unnerving experience of channel-hopping in an instant from a gloriously young Robert De Niro to his far less glorious older self. Film can capture time as it unfolds and even beat it at its own game.
Cinematic time has always been a concern of the American director Richard Linklater. Many of his best films unfold during a time frame dictated in advance, from a few hours to a full day. The parts of his trilogy “Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight,” for example, were made at nine-year intervals, but if we add up the time frames their stories cover, we get one single day. In his new movie, “Boyhood,” Linklater chooses a seemingly opposite path. The film – his best work to date, and one of the year’s main cinematic events – was shot with the same cast over a 12-year period, for a few days each summer. It focuses on the growth of its hero, Mason, from the age of six to the age of 18; before our eyes, Mason and the actor playing him, Ellar Coltrane, undergo the most extreme transformation that can attest to the workings of time.
The beauty, power and value of “Boyhood” stem in part from Linklater’s wise decision not to give his unusually made movie an unusual plot. On the contrary, even. Linklater uses his extended cinematic surveillance to make an archetypal family drama about archetypal characters. The movie is a portrait of “Americana” – that is, America’s nearly folkloric essence, made up of events and moments we’ve seen in dozens of other films about growing up in the American home and American society. Linklater’s major coup is avoiding banality, offering us instead a chain of moments – few of them deliberately dramatic, most of them mundane and predictable in the empowering sense of the word – that create a sense of life and truth in the making.
Mason lives in Texas. His parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), are divorced. He has an older sister named Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter). He sees his father infrequently, but when they do meet, their relationship is loving. If his father’s absence leaves a scar, the movie does not tell us as much; it’s not that kind of film. Rather than turn psychological explanations into drama, the movies leaves them for us to figure out on our own. But this does not mean that the characters in “Boyhood” lack complexity or depth. “Boyhood” observes, with behavioral prevision, a life unfolding before us from day to day and from year to year. Olivia, who goes back to get her college degree, moves her children from one home to the next, and her judgment when it comes to men is questionable, to say the least. One of those men (Marco Perella), a professor at her college, turns out to be an abusive alcoholic. We’ve seen many films in which men abuse women, and I didn’t think I could still be shocked by such material. But the handful of scenes, direct and yet subtle, in which Linklater documents this part of Mason’s life are made so wisely that I found myself experiencing a shock and outrage I had not felt in a while at the movies. The end of this episode is heartbreaking, and not for the usual melodramatic reasons.
I won’t say any more about the plot of “Boyhood,” but will return instead to the issue of time: there is a sense of wonder that comes with watching characters and actors mature before our eyes. In a “regular” kind of movie that follows a long process of growing up, several actors are usually cast to play the hero or heroine at different ages. It does not always work. Here, however, we see a change that is captured forever in all its dynamic essence, which is different from a collection of still photos and videos that capture our collective past and the changes we’ve undergone.
The archetypal nature of the plot allows Linklater to explore unbroken time versus fragmented time, showing us their similarities and differences and juxtaposing them to create a dialectical debate. Of course the movie, which lasts 165 minutes, was not shot all at once; Linklater sometimes stresses the transitions and in other cases downplays them.
The glue holding this idea together is Ethan Hawke, whose work on “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight” coincided with the filming of “Boyhood.” His own maturation and physical transformation is evident in both the trilogy and this movie. Hawke, like Patricia Arquette and the rest of the cast, does excellent work, as does Ellar Coltrane in all parts of his performance, from childhood to young adulthood. The sight of him growing up before us would have been riveting, even if he had not also been a capable performer.
I hesitate whether to call “Boyhood” a masterpiece, unless what I mean by it is a model of adventurous, bold and intelligent filmmaking. Regardless, “Boyhood” was an intellectually and emotionally stimulating experience. When it ended I wanted to go on watching Mason’s life develop further, and – if that were not an option – to turn the past into the present and watch it all over again.