Bless him, Richard Linklater has never been afraid to experiment with the medium of cinema. The revolving protagonists of Slacker, the deliberate formlessness of Dazed and Confused, the episodic quasi-monologues of Waking Life, and the involved conversations of the Before movies all spring from an artist who’s trying to make films more like real life as we experience it while at the same time expanding the nature of what a movie can be.
Boyhood is his most radical experiment yet. In trying to capture the life of a boy from childhood to adolescence, he shot scenes with a kid actor and a dedicated cast of supporting players for a few days each year over a period of 12 years. He would have been screwed had the kid turned out a serial killer (or, more prosaically, if he’d simply decided halfway in that he didn’t want to make the movie anymore). Many TV shows have shown characters growing up over the course of their run, and a few film series have managed the trick, like Michael Apted’s Up series and, weirdly enough, the Harry Potter movies. Still, it’s another thing to witness one character getting in 12 years’ worth of maturing over the course of a mere 163 minutes. The simple passage of time is the movie’s dazzling special effect, and it is what demands an audience.
Ellar Coltrane stars as Mason Evans Jr., who starts out as a 6-year-old Texas boy whose divorced mom (Patricia Arquette) is trying to raise him and his older sister Samantha (played by the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater) by herself while their dad (Ethan Hawke) is out pursuing his dream of becoming a musician. Dad eventually moves back to Texas to be near his children, while Mom finds her way into two disastrous marriages with bitter alcoholics, though she obtains a graduate degree and becomes a psychology professor anyway. For his part, Mason is moved around from Houston to San Marcos to Austin, acquires and loses a girlfriend (Zoe Graham), and eventually starts college at UT.
The movie eschews the popular tropes of coming-of-age films like the first kiss. Instead, Linklater finds resonance in the smaller moments of Mason’s life, like his first stepdad (Marco Perella) summarily shearing off the boy’s long hair, saying proudly, “Now you’ll look like a man instead of a girl!” or in a trip to his new stepmother’s parents’ ranch in East Texas, where Mason is given the birthday presents of a Bible and a shotgun. Terrence Malick tried to capture the texture of life in Texas growing up with a stern father figure in The Tree of Life, but this movie succeeds more fully at that task without indulging in Malick’s philosophical ramblings. Dad’s buddy (Charlie Sexton) shows up early on as a guitar-strumming slacker in a crappy apartment, and when he resurfaces near the end as a gray-haired successful musician playing big venues, it’s a mystical moment that outdoes anything in Malick.
Coltrane’s metamorphosis is more gradual since we spend the whole movie with him, though there’s a cut midway through when it’s clear that the actor underwent a growth spurt in the year between the scenes. We see Mason evolve from a curious kid to a thoughtful young man with a tongue-in-cheek theory about how Facebook will rule the world. Coltrane is quite good, and perhaps his naturalism is the result of being in front of cameras his whole life, though if it were, you’d think that Lorelei Linklater wouldn’t grow distinctly more uncomfortable in front of the camera as she reached her teenage years.
He’s matched by Arquette and Hawke, whose performances are remarkably consistent over the course of the film. Late in the film, Mom breaks down in tears as she’s about to send Mason to college, and Arquette manages to make it both touching and funny. (“My whole life has been a series of milestones. … You know what’s next for me? My fucking funeral! I thought there would be more!”)
Even more amazing is how this movie compresses time without ever seeming like it’s losing too much. I think back to something Linklater said in Waking Life (in character as a guy playing pinball): “There’s only one instant, and it’s right now, and it’s eternity.” If there’s one idea that pulls together all the disparate films in this director’s filmography, that’s it. It’s certainly the idea behind Boyhood, a small-scale movie with clearly marked time periods that still manages to feel epic and infinite.
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Rated R.