Film as a medium has been uniquely obsessed with time for the entirety of its existence – bending, shaping, conquering – allowing us to experience its passage in any number of ways other than the inextricably linear way we experience it. And while projects in the past have chronicled the passage of time over the course of multiple films (Apted’s series of Up documentaries, Linklater’s own Before trilogy) or through various means in a single film (makeup or separate actors portraying a character at different ages), Boyhood is a true original in terms of concept and execution. Returning annually over the course of 12 years to the same actors portraying the same characters, Linklater has created something inexpressibly emotional by following Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 6 all the way to 18. We’ve all heard that time passes us by and most of us have felt this concept deeply, but never has all-too-quick passage been made so vivid in cinematic terms.
While the film’s title suggests a male-centric perspective, it provides a panoptic view of the lives similarly caught in Mason Jr.’s orbit, giving both parents (Patricia Arquette and Linklater mainstay Ethan Hawke) as well as his sister (played by the director’s own daughter, Lorelei) near equal time to evolve alongside its main character. Arquette and Hawke are equally powerful, bringing sensitivity to their portrayals of this broken family unit. Hawke slowly matures over the course of the film, and Arquette is constantly trying to provide a nuclear family for her children, yet always repeating the same mistakes. These are flawed human beings, but we see ourselves in them, and the specificity with which they bring them to life makes the film’s appeal universal. Coltrane is a fascinating study. In the early stages of the film he’s something of a blank as compared to the rest of his performers, but as he grows older he develops a unique personality and worldview, and the film follows him on this journey. The film is awash in the pop culture of each year filming took place, which in theory could make the film feel as insular as a time capsule. This works in the film’s favor, with Mason Jr. being subjected to the tastes of others in the early stages of the film, only to develop his own more matured tastes and interests as the film progresses along with him.
There’s nothing showy or obtrusive about the transitions between the years, editor Sandra Adair gives the film the natural flow of life, a series of evocative short stories connected by ellipses, with only the physical changes Mason Jr. undergoes indicating the passage of time. It’s a film composed of exquisitely realized moments, foregoing seismic events in Mason Jr.’s life (the divorce of his biological parents, his first kiss) and instead settling for the bite-sized profundities that we accrue throughout our lifetimes like so much luggage. Moments of explosive drama coexist with passages that reflect the banality of time’s passage – drunken outbursts and awkward teenage conversations are each fully realized and have the sparkling sheen of reality. This is a film to be experienced and savored, with images of ineffable power. Mason Jr. painting over his height on the wall of a house they’re leaving, standing atop a swing while wildly swaying higher and higher, sharing a romantic rooftop embrace as the sun rises. And while the movie both begins and ends with Mason Jr. looking to the sky, full of questions and potential, it’s a different image that I feel sums up the movie’s unique emotional pull, one that occurs very early on. It’s Mason Jr. leaving a childhood home, likely never to see his friends again, seeing one of them pedaling wildly on a bicycle and waving goodbye, only to be eclipsed by fields of grass as the family car pulls away. We often find ourselves looking back, but time refuses to wait and we’ll soon enough find those memories and experiences obscured and faded. There’s something sad about that, but also something beautiful in the potential each moment can hold, a humane balance Boyhood (and Richard Linklater) seem to intrinsically understand.