Shot sporadically over the course of 12 years in order to capture the literal aging of young Texas protagonist Mason (stunning newcomer Ellar Coltrane), Boyhood boasts a conceit that’s impossible to ignore. Jumping ahead years at a time without fanfare, with simple cuts suddenly revealing how Mason's getting older, Richard Linklater’s film can’t help but call attention to its own central structural device. The result is a unique work that’s constantly making one aware of its own formal construction, and the effort that went into making it, in stops and starts, for more than a decade. Far from disruptive or alienating, that self-consciousness proves to be one of the most powerful aspects of Linklater’s latest, because it’s directly tied into its very themes. At heart, Boyhood is a masterpiece about time—and, more specifically, about the way that we process the many alternately unimportant and momentous moments that, year by year, come to comprise our lives.
Which isn’t to say that the director treats his subject matter in an overtly philosophical manner. One of Boyhood's many marvelous aspects is that, on the surface, it plays like an engagingly naturalistic coming-of-age saga. Introducing its main character with a shot of him staring at the sky and daydreaming while lying on his back outside school, Boyhood trails Mason from the age of 6 to 18 with a pseudo-verité interest in his interactions with his divorced single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), often-absentee dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), as well as friends, girlfriends, and mom’s two subsequent, alcohol-loving husbands (Marco Perella and Brad Hawkins). With an unshowy, gently empathetic gaze, Linklater charts the kid’s various ups and downs dealing with disappointment, heartache, humiliation, and joy, conveying a stew of complex human emotions through conversations and encounters marked not by expository dialogue but by telling asides, sideways glances, and silent looks.
Mason’s distress over his dad not being around much, or the contrast between his mythic conception of his father and the reality of the man, or, as in a sterling early scene, mom’s anger over dad’s desire to be a cool, GTO-driving drop-in who brings presents and good times while she’s stuck being the parent responsible for getting kids to do chores and homework, is all articulated without underlined Big Statements or showboat-y histrionics. Boyhood simply presents a series of naturalistic scenes in which everyday incidents are allowed to organically reveal characters’ incessantly fluctuating internal states. It’s the rare film capable of dramatizing both the ho-hum minutia and life-changing events of life through signpost-free dialogue that, as with the action itself, feels like the spontaneous byproduct of everything that’s come before it.
And that, in turn, speaks to Boyhood’s larger, more awe-inspiring portrait of time, and the underlying nature of life. As the film progresses, Mason develops from a round-faced, wounded-eyed kid to a shaggy haired tween and then to a lanky, scraggly facial-haired young adult. Watching him mature before one’s eyes involves constant reconsideration of how he’s changed, both outside and in. By compelling viewers to acknowledge and contemplate Mason’s transformations, and, by extension, the fact that the film was made so that this could be possible, Linklater prompts us to also view Mason’s story as one that’s fundamentally about aging, and about how life is a step-by-step march forward, and about how each one of those steps is simultaneously ephemeral and yet crucial (in ways either large or small) in defining who we are.
By fixating on Mason doing all sorts of average things that average kids do (i.e., squabbling with his sister, slacking off at a job, dealing with a break-up, being bullied in a school bathroom), the film, at a hefty 166-minute runtime, accumulates many microcosmic occurrences into a macro vision of growing up as a process of enduring, wrestling with, and enjoying an unpredictable and often-uncontrollable string of varied episodes.
Consequently, nothing earth-shattering actually takes place in Boyhood. Mason simply gets on with what’s in front of him, be it dealing with a drunken stepdad throwing a glass near his head, being hazed by older kids about sex, or making out with a girl in the backseat of a car and then, upon returning home, having to talk to his mom while mildly stoned. Linklater understands that all of these things aren’t part of a well-laid-out grand plan, but pit-stops along the way to future unanticipated pit-stops. That this is the way of things proves both a source of misery and hope in Boyhood. As Mason goes off to college, Arquette’s character cries because she had hoped there was more to life than merely a procession of accomplishments leading to the grave; meanwhile, Mason, in the quietly pivotal final scene, casts an optimistic eye to the horizon, and then toward and then away from, and then back to, a potential new love interest. With that comes an acceptance: Day after day, “the moment seizes you.”
The greatness of Boyhood lies in the fact that, even as it repeatedly highlights its this-was-produced-over-12-years composition, it expresses insights about human experience without having to openly state them. It asks us to watch Mason mature and, in doing so, shows us that no matter how hard we try, we can’t ever hold on to any one moment, no matter how much we want to, or how important we believe said moment to be. Ambling alongside Mason as he morphs from a boy into a man, Boyhood attunes itself to his adolescent condition(s) with piercing sensitivity.
It’s a film about what life is, what we are, and what it all means, and one that tackles such weighty concerns through incidents as ordinary as a father and son sitting around a campfire, or a boy and his girlfriend eating queso in a diner at 3 a.m. An achievement of immense depth and profundity, Boyhood locates monumental truths in the commonplace details of growing up, growing older, and, with any luck, growing wiser.
Nick Schager is a film critic who's contributed to The Dissolve, Esquire, and The Atlantic, among numerous other publications. He tweets here.
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