Unfolding like one of Frederick Wiseman’s longitudinal portraits, and with the same cumulative force, Boyhood enacts a miracle. Over the course of its duration, a leisurely 166 minutes, we see a boy age from six to eighteen. There is no CGI or digital manipulation, as there was in, say, David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Fincher used motion capture, as well as prosthetics, to render the effects of age over time. Richard Linklater went about things in true Linklater fashion: he shot the film over a twelve year period with the same cast, including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, who play the boy’s parents. Hawke has likened the process and the resulting film to time-lapse photography, though it’s time-lapse without dissolves. Chapters begin and end without fanfare. Change is registered by a hair-cut or a growth spurt: inches for years, if you like; while revolutions in technology or the swell of a new cultural moment—yet more revolutions—provides us with further evidence that time has passed. Rich in feeling and ravishing to look at, Boyhood is both universal in its themes and distinctly American: it could easily have been called Family or Motherhood or This American Life.
How many films leave you truly satisfied? And how many contemporary filmmakers attempt what Linklater does here: to show you a person grow and change so that not only do you feel altered in some immeasurable way but actually feel concerned about that person’s future? At the end of Boyhood, which is as full and as rich as a great novel, yet as delicate as a poem, I wondered: what will become of Mason Evans? He doesn’t exist, of course. But our investment in Mason’s progress is deep, while our feelings are surely influenced by the knowledge that the young actor who plays him, Ellar Coltrane, has put in the hours. To paraphrase Godard, talking about Jean Rouch’s Gare du Nord: years reinforce years; when they really pile up, they begin to be impressive.*
When we first see him he is lying on the grass, looking at the sky: six years old and redolent of so many of Richard Linklater’s dreamers, real and rotoscoped, though too young to appreciate what Kent Jones wrote of the director: “He has always made dreaming and inactivity into a cause.” Besides, Mason is only waiting for his mother to collect him. Causes will come later. On their way home Mason and his mother talk about his day at school: the requirement to hand in his homework, even if the teacher doesn’t ask for it; or the reasons why Mason attempted to sharpen stones with a pencil sharpener. To Mason, a sharpener sharpens, whether it’s a pencil or a rock you shove in it, which makes sense. For that’s how a child might think, until someone more experienced—a parent, a teacher, a guardian—corrects them. There will be a procession of such figures throughout Mason’s childhood and adolescence, and each will attempt in their own way to give him the benefit of their experience, to put him straight, as it were. But as we see him grow, as his mind begins to form, Mason will figure things out for himself. Boyhood is all about Mason’s experience, and the personal milestones that make up a life: moving town; changing school; the family you inherit, or leave behind; graduation; first love; and leaving home. It’s also about the flowering of an artistic consciousness: a portrait of the artist…?
There’s a moment early on when Mason and his sister Samantha spend a weekend with their dad. They go back to his place, which he shares with another man, a musician. The apartment is a mess, as if both men have not quite grown up or transcended their own boyhood, though Mason’s dad at least shows signs of self-awareness. He sits down at a keyboard and begins to sing. The kids listen attentively, in the way that children do when adults perform. But things get really interesting when the lyrics reflect something of their own situation: he’s aware of it, and so are they. And at that moment it’s as if a light goes on: Mason and Samantha have been given an insight not only into their father but how something as simple as a song might resonate with their lives. Dramatically there’s nothing at stake, but it feels true and enriches our experience of this fictional family. We’re watching them grow, not only physically but intellectually. And throughout Boyhood, this effect occurs—or reoccurs—this blending of the real physical changes over time with the subtle, organic shifts in a young person’s consciousness. It’s documentary-like and novelistic, and Linklater holds both impulses in check, allowing neither one to become dominant. He knows he can’t get ahead of himself and outpace his material; that would be ruinous. Time keeps him true.
Perhaps this approach accounts for the film’s richness, as well as its sense of grace. It is not unlike Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, another film about mothers and sons and growing up in Texas. But while Malick attempted to give us the whole of creation, Linklater is concerned with quotidian truths. Significant rituals are both downplayed and subtly celebrated. A camping trip with his dad becomes a life lesson, though not without humour: values are passed on, attempts to inculcate a love of…Wilko? It’s hard to resist these moments, especially when Linklater gives us a child’s eye view of a dashboard and windshield that takes up the width of the screen. So much of Boyhood plays like a road movie in which we don’t always see the road: in effect, we see Mason go from the child-seat to driving a pick-up truck; from dependence on others to self-reliance. But then Mason shows signs of independence from an early age, breaking curfews or resisting attempts to suppress his creativity. At school his passion for photography, and the amount of time he spends in the dark room, leads to a disagreement with a teacher, and one of the few moments Linklater allows himself a visual, almost expressionistic, flourish: the red light of the dark room so close to Scorsese red. Like Linklater himself, Mason will take his own sweet time; he will photograph what he finds interesting; and, presumably, he still shoots on film. (Boyhood was filmed on 35mm.)
Photography is Mason’s entry point into the outside world and a whole new sphere of influence—artistic as opposed to parental. Later, when Mason stops at a gas station, he takes out his camera and begins taking pictures: yellow signal lights, a red hydrant, Americana. The gas station itself—corrugated, dilapidated, and as old as time—looks like something that William Eggleston photographed, conscious of an earlier tradition initiated by Walker Evans and Dorethea Lange, and so imaginatively essayed by Geoff Dyer in his book on photography, The Ongoing Moment. It did make me wonder: perhaps someone had stoked Mason’s interest in photography and bought him a copy of Dyer’s book. It also occurred to me that Dyer’s title perfectly describes both the process and the cumulative effect of Linklater’s film. Boyhood is precisely that: an ongoing moment. Not that we should be surprised by any of this, given Linklater’s previous adventures in time-based narrative: Slacker, Dazed & Confused, Tape, the Before trilogy. You could say that Linklater has devoted his entire career to ongoing moments, in one form or another. No one else, other than Wiseman or James Benning, could have given us the incremental bloom of a young life without the necessary qualities—which Linklater possesses in abundance—of patience, stamina, and daring—as well the faith in his own process. With Boyhood, Linklater has raised a film as though it were a child. It's on its own now.
*”Seconds reinforce seconds; when they really pile up, they begin to be impressive.”—Jean-Luc Godard