Among the arts, cinema has a unique relationship with time. Like photography, film captures a moment in permanent, reproducible form; but like music and dance, it also moves through time itself, requiring the listener or viewer to invest some portion of her allotted hours on Earth in accompanying its unspooling. Film can’t help but show time passing; that might be thought of as its most irreducible function, whether the object in frame is the Empire State Building in Andy Warhol’s Empire or Alida Valli striding coldly up the boulevard past Joseph Cotten at the end of The Third Man. Something (or in Warhol’s case, nothing) happened; a camera was there to record it; and though you can rewatch that past moment as often as you like, it will never take place again.
I can think of few feature films in the history of the medium that have explored the power, and the melancholy, of film’s intimate enmeshment with time in the way Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does. There’s François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, in which we watch that character, a truant kid played by Truffaut’s onscreen proxy and eventual quasi-adopted son Jean-Pierre Léaud, age from around 12 to around 32. But since those five films were made over a period of 20 years, the shock of watching Léaud grow up comes at us serially, in chunks. Michael Apted’s extraordinary Up documentaries, which check in every seven years on the progress of the lives of a group of British schoolchildren first filmed in 1964, are even more widely spaced; visiting each new installment is like attending a family reunion, wondering who will show up and what condition he or she will be in.
But Boyhood, which traces the life of Mason, a fictional Texas boy (Ellar Coltrane), from age 7 to age 18, does something with film and time that neither Truffaut nor Apted did—something that’s at once conceptually simple and logistically half insane. Filming once a year over a course of 12 years, Linklater built a story around the real-life passage through time, not only of Coltrane, but of the entire cast (including his own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, who plays Mason’s bossy older sister, Samantha). Condensing a dozen years of growth and change into a two-hour-and-40-minute-long narrative, Boyhood reimagines the coming-of-age film as family album, longitudinal character study, and collaborative artistic experiment—a mad risk that paid off in a movie that’s as transcendent as it is ordinary, just like life.
Nothing that happens in Boyhood breaks new ground in the history of drama—if anything, Linklater is at pains to keep surprising incidents to a minimum. (When his daughter, then a teenager tired of returning to her dad’s pet project every summer, asked him to kill off her character, the director refused: He wanted to avoid any such tragic twists.) Mason and Samantha’s stressed-out single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), squabbles with their father and her ex, the charming but flakey Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). After moving the children to Houston so she can study for a psychology degree, Olivia marries her professor (Marco Perella), which proves, for reasons I’ll let the film unfold for you, to be a huge mistake. Fleeing that nightmare, she heads to San Marcos, Texas, where she takes up with a younger man, an Iraq vet who may or may not also be iffy husband material. All the while, Mason Sr. retains regular contact with his kids, gradually maturing into a more present, if less glamorous, dad—by the time Mason and Samantha reach high school, he’s the happily remarried, minivan-driving father of a baby boy.
Though Mason’s parents’ struggles and loves provide a scaffolding to hang the story on, the real stuff of Boyhood consists in the consecutive isolated moments of childhood we experience through Mason’s eyes—listening to his parents fight downstairs, getting a note from a crushed-out classmate for the first time, being dragged to get a crewcut against his will by his strict new stepfather, shouting at his annoying sister to stop singing Britney Spears. (Linklater’s use of contemporary pop music as background sound—which kept the final soundtrack on hold for months while music-licensing issues were worked out—is only one of the ways he deliberately but subtly situates Boyhood in its historical time frame. A scene that takes place in the headily idealistic days of Obama’s first presidential campaign plays now with a tincture of second-term irony.) Without flashbacks, flashforwards, explicit time markers (“two years later,” etc.), or other explanatory devices, Linklater trusts his audience to hang on for the ride as Mason grows—at first imperceptibly, then suddenly with shocking speed—from a round-cheeked imp on a bike into a lanky, thoughtful teenager with piercings, acne, and a fast-food summer job.
In order for the gradually unfolding miracle that is Boyhood to come together, a lot of collaborators had to be on the same page over the course of a long and much-interrupted period of time. (Linklater has called it the longest scheduled shoot in film history.) There are inevitable rough patches in the end result, most of them having to do with inconsistencies in the performance style between the professional and nonprofessional actors. Arquette and Hawke are both superb, doing the best work of their careers as they throw themselves into their characters’ satisfyingly long and inclusive arcs. Over the course of the dozen years the film covers, they get the chance to crack jokes; read Harry Potter aloud; flirt; offer advice; lash out; break down; and, in Arquette’s case, deliver a late monologue about the heartbreak of becoming an empty-nester that’s at once devastating and humorously over the top: “You know what’s next? My funeral!”
Like Hawke and Julie Delpy in Linklater’s Before series—another example of the longitudinal cinematic study described above—Arquette’s and Hawke’s low-key but acutely observed performances seem to effortlessly incorporate decades’ worth of backstory; they aren’t so much acting as behaving within a context. And because Linklater lucked out—or is preternaturally gifted at casting child actors—the quiet, focused Coltrane matches them beat for acting beat, whether he’s a middle-schooler asking his dad if elves are real or a 15-year-old admitting to his mom he just smoked pot. But Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, charmingly uninhibited in the early scenes, seems increasingly stiff and uncomfortable in her role. And Marco Perella, as Olivia’s authoritarian and eventually dangerous second husband, lays on the menace with a gardening trowel; he seems to be scaling his acting for a different film than the one he’s in. But Boyhood’s irregular, handmade quality and occasional intersections with everyday reality (like the moment when a home run at a real Houston Astros game is incorporated into the story) are a part of the film’s unique texture, its status as both narrative and document.
We’re all familiar with the convention wherein a vaguely lookalike child actor is cast to play the younger version of a film’s lead, and with that moment of disruption and disconnection when the adult actor appears for the first time and we must accept the character’s existential continuity with the kid who came before. In Boyhood, there’s never a question of Ellar Coltrane’s continuity with himself, yet the changes he undergoes before our eyes require an even bigger leap of faith. Compressed into the space of under three hours, growing up seems as inexplicable a feat as a magic trick. “It’s always now,” the college-aged Mason marvels near the end of the film, tripping on mushrooms with some friends in West Texas’ Big Bend National Park. (If Boyhood has a recurring theme beyond the mystery of time’s passage, it’s Linklater’s Proustian memory for the scruffy, sunbaked landscapes of his home state.) Mason’s epiphany about the ever-renewed “nowness” of the present moment may be hallucinogen-induced, but the audience’s own epiphany has been brought on by something else: the profound, funny, beautiful film we’ve just, to our surprise, spent nearly three hours (or was it 12 years?) inside of. The time just flew by.