Captured over time
As is the case with many parents, I’m in no hurry for my daughters to grow up. Ages 10 and eight are great, and the teenage years can wait. Still, there is a part of me that longs for a crystal ball that will show me how my girls live through—and survive—childhood, and who they will be as adults.
Boyhood doesn’t do anything fancy. In fact, it’s the movie’s simplicity and understated nature that makes it so unique.
That is part of the appeal of Richard Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood: viewers see how the fictitious story of a boy—and his revolving cast of friends and family members—plays out from age six to 18.
Boyhood doesn’t do anything fancy. In fact, it’s the movie’s simplicity and understated nature that makes it so unique. Using the same cast and shooting the film several days per year for a 12-year period, Boyhood cinematically tracks the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) one year at a time. Linklater, who wrote and directed the film, reportedly added to the script annually, often not writing new scenes until the filming re-convened each year.
We literally see Mason grow up on screen and attempt to navigate life. We see the moments that mold his future, starting with six-year-old Mason moving to Houston with older sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) and mom, Patricia Arquette. There, Mason and Samantha re-connect with their estranged dad (played by frequent Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke).
Every year brings a significant moment, be it Mom’s relationship with her professor that starts to sour, Dad’s awkward teaching moments, or Mason’s constant explorations, whether it’s with girls, substances, or photography. What makes the film seem genuine is that these scenes of growth are presented organically, with no fanfare.
There are no date markers at all, nothing to say “2005” or any other year. Suddenly Mason has longer hair, Samantha has grown, and Mom and Dad have new love interests. It’s easy to become invested in the characters because even if we haven’t made the same choices as the characters, we know the difficulty—and consequences—that come with everyday decisions and inevitable change.
Mason is an adaptable kid. His parents often make questionable choices that have a direct negative impact on his life. He has no major personal triumphs, but seems more than content just to be along for the ride and observe and embrace what’s around him. He and Samantha ride shotgun in a vehicle driven by their parents’ oft-problematic decisions. The film makes the case that children don’t really control their own destiny and are subject to the decisions of the adults around them.
At the beginning, the acting feels a bit stilted, perhaps because two of the main actors are young children, but also because the actors don’t really know where their characters are headed down the road. As Coltrane becomes more comfortable, so does his supporting cast.
While the number of years spent filming Boyhood make it unique, it is well within Linklater’s comfort zone. He has deftly proven he can create stories based on a focused amount of time. His breakthrough film, Dazed and Confused, chronicled the last day of high school in a Texas town in the 70s. His trilogy, Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, honed in on a short piece of time as well.
The fact that Boyhood plays out over 12 years instead of 12 hours is not only ambitious but also more conducive to the audience investing in the characters and their story.
By the time Mason heads off to college, I, like his mom, am not completely ready to let him go. He has survived adolescence, but to me the story isn’t over. I still want to be able to check in on Mason, much like viewers can with the Up documentary series, which filmed kids at age 7 and then looped back up with the same group every seven years.
It’s hard to imagine that the same group in Boyhood could commit for another 12 years, but given Linklater’s penchant for recurring actors and characters, a sequel, while unlikely, isn’t completely out of the question.
Until then, I’ll just have to settle for seeing how my own daughters turn out.
3.5/4 stars. Rated R for language, adult themes, and teen drug use; 2 hours, 45 minutes long.