The rites-of-passage tale has been covered in cinema countless of times before but rarely as magnificently accomplished as Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, taking an ambitious, experimental leap across time – a cinematic undertaking over the course of twelve years – to chart the growth of a child to an adult while capturing all the essence of growing up in between. Frenchman François Truffaut takes significant precedence in this protracted film concept, chronicling the actor Jean-Pierre Léaud for twenty years in the Antoine Doinel series, commencing from 1959’s The 400 Blows right up to 1979’s Love on the Run – but Linklater one-ups Truffaut by compounding twelve consecutive years of a fictional character’s life in 164 glorious minutes. Here, we bear witness to the character Mason Jr.’s evolution (and in turn, actor Ellar Coltrane’s transformation from a schoolboy to a gangly teen) – encompassing the joys, pains, confusions, anxieties, hopes and dreams of childhood and adolescent life. If several moments seem all-too-familiar, that’s because Linklater manages to give this specific experience gain universal resonance, mirroring this boy’s life in a much broader scope that any man walking on the street would stop, see and relate to Mason’s saga as an evolving human being. After all, we’ve all been through the childhood route once in our lives.
If truth be told, this stands alongside Linklater’s Before trilogy in its thematic evocation of the passage of time, delineating characters’ physical and emotional evolution through a real-time conceit. Here, Mason Jr. (which Coltrane plays with such understated, wonderful consistency) is the core to which the film anchors its gaze, along with a slightly older sister Samantha (daughter of director Lorelei Linklater) and their separated parents Olivia and Mason Sr. (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, both providing impressive professional dedication to the project). For a few days every year from 2002 to 2013, Linklater observes the quotidian details of Mason’s youngster years up to his eventual maturation as an independent adult without pandering to the pieties of plot or grand overstatements. There are no deux ex machinas, no generic ellipsis into teenage angst that suffuse other movies of the ilk, no clichéd walk through high-school movie territory. But like the best of Linklater’s films, he successfully manages to find warmth, wit, humour and incredible resonance from the simplest events in life – conversations between children, angry rows between parents, contemplative dialogues about past, present and future, pop-culture references and even parental lectures about first sex and contraception. His deft, naturalistic hand at capturing believable details and nuances in human interplay gives this film such a rich texture, luxuriating in casual interactions that could have easily been plucked out of real life and not from a screenplay.
One thing you can never (and mustn’t) accuse this film of is a lack in narrative momentum. This is not that movie. If your life moves in a break-neck pace and your preference in film narrative is plot over character development, then this film is not for you. Boyhood is the antithesis of a commercially-driven Hollywood movie, a film that goes against the industry’s speeding conveyor belt, indulging in the gentle flow of time. For nearly three hours, Boyhood unfolds unhurriedly, with Linklater purposefully capturing moments in time, with all its banalities, quiet complexities and the little profundities of what it means to take responsibility for yourself. Yet it never loses, not once, its gravity – much like going through a photograph album, where details and memories reach a nostalgic zenith, eventually arriving at a present juncture where we contemplate where all that time has gone. As beautifully put by Arquette’s straight-talkin’, hardworking single mother, “before we know it, it’s my fucking funeral”. In Linklater’s perspective, time isn’t really lost – it’s all become absorbed as part of our personal growth and life’s tapestry that we’re woven into. It’s a beautiful, optimistic thesis writ large across Boyhood‘s timelapse.
But what really makes Linklater’s film particularly stand out compared to many coming-of-age movies is in its logistical achievement of overcoming the real-time challenges of real people growing up in from and behind the camera throughout the years. One can only imagine the risks involved – sickness, death and life’s natural occurrences could literally stall the project for good – so it’s all the more remarkable that Linklater managed to steer this film into the finish line. It’s a testament to the creative commitment of, undoubtedly, one of America’s brightest, enduring filmmakers – and also to everyone involved, who all pursued to give us something akin to a lightning in a bottle for all of us to behold and cherish across time.