I remember moving to a new town and leaving my grade-school friends behind. I remember kids with something to prove shoving themselves into me and then getting in my face and sneering don’t bump into me, daring me to do anything but turn and walk away. I remember the first time a girl followed me around school. I remember heading for college and huddling around like-minded sensitive types, surveying the adult world we were preparing to occupy, and, like probably every other kid on the planet does when they reach this stage, thinking out loud just as the lead character in Boyhood does: We’re f**ked.
In fact, that’s also what I was generally thinking about this year in movies—until Richard Linklater‘s marvelous coming-of-age film came along.
Linklater–perhaps most well-known for charting the evolving romantic relationship between characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in what very much resembles real time in the films Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and last year’s Before Midnight–has pulled off a truly daring feat of filmmaking with Boyhood. The film was shot over a period of 12 years, so that the growth of young Texas boy Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from grade school to college age could be depicted with a special kind of authenticity; we watch a child become a young man right before our eyes in a work that takes the conceit behind Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries and fuses it to a naturalistic family drama. Hawke, who clearly has affection for these unique cinematic experiments, plays the boy’s father.
Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) has primary custody of her son and his older sister (played by Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s own daughter), and struggles to make life better for the family by returning to school at night to become a teacher. She has a knack for latching onto bad men, however, and the two she connects with after divorcing Mason’s father turn out to be very poor step-parents—leading Mason to treat the time he spends with his biological father as an important emotional anchor.
What struck me as most impressive about Boyhood is that it is about our experience of the story more than the events of the story, but at the same time, it avoids the trap of coming across like a gimmick film. There is just enough de-emphasizing of plot to give us the feeling of everyday life, but also just enough story to provide structure and momentum, with Linklater’s transitions from one year to the next creatively natural and seamless. We never get that “one year later” feeling (and there are certainly no captions or overdramatic visual devices to mark the passage of time), but we are also never confused about where we are in the timeline.
There are clever signifiers to mark our way through the years—there is talk of the Iraq War invasion, a Harry Potter book release party, Mason playing Gameboy Advance one year and an Xbox later on, and so forth. The story takes place in Texas, so we have nods to the Jesus and gun cultures, though not in the overly didactic way you might expect.
And you’ll be really stunned to watch little Ellar Coltrane grow up to resemble a young Ethan Hawke—this was as gutsy and brilliant a piece of casting as you will see in the movies. The rest of the cast turns in equally impressive performances for their realism and restraint. There are no melodramatic “Oscar scenes,” in that pejorative way of thinking about big movie moments, to be found here—only once or twice do scenes feel particularly “written”; in his teen years, Mason develops an interest in photography, and in one scene a teacher delivers a lengthy admonishment to him about work ethic and success in the arts, and that scene does feel a bit on the nose in its semi-autobiographical construction…but even for that weakness, it’s still a recognizable situation. Who among us hasn’t gotten one of those “nose to the grindstone” speeches from an adult when we were kids?
Whether you are male or female, young or old, you are likely to recognize yourself at various points throughout Boyhood. You will see yourself as a child; you will see yourself as a parent, or a step-parent; you might nod in recognition at those moments a character appears beaten down by life, just as you will picture those times you found yourself embracing the piercing beauty of a fleeting moment.
You’re also likely to start thinking, as I did, about how your life was or is different from the lives depicted onscreen—oh, that’s not how it was for me—and that, too, is key to the genius of this movie’s storytelling. From moment to moment to moment, you are thoroughly invested not just in the connecting to how these characters are formed through time, but how the characters relate, or don’t, to your own evolution through the years.
There’s that saying: Give me the boy until he is seven, and I’ll give you the man. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood shows us how that might be true, and how it might be false. It shows us how we think we’ve got it all figured out, until we realize we haven’t a clue. It reveals how we spend our lives either looking forward, or looking back, and how that soulful displacement gifts and curses our ability to live where we always truly are—in this present moment. And the next. And the next after that. In every right now.