Wobbly at times but still magical in an everyday way, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood proves that intimate doesn’t have to equal melodrama and experimental can still be perfectly approachable. The film follows a quiet and daydream-prone boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane, likable if sometimes stiff), growing up in Texas with snarky older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and divorced parents (Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke). There’s no story, per se, it’s just his life from about age 7 to 18. The look is straightforward and shorn of obvious directorial flair, the often affectless dialogue even more so. But that deceptively simple framework is rich with accrued detail and even some backhanded insight.
Like Linklater’s Before Sunset / Sunrise / Midnight trilogy, this story plays at verite within a fictional construct, with its actors growing up before our eyes. It’s a possibly unprecedented way to shoot a narrative film — like the fictional equivalent of Michael Apted’s 7 Up documentary series — and a strangely patient one for attention-deficient times. Over a period of 12 years, Linklater annually gathered crew and cast for quick three- or four-day shoots. Each moved this plangent epic another year down the road toward a raggedly philosophical conclusion that offers no great reward, only the oddly satisfying sight of Mason going off to college.
Instead of hitting the expected big moments in Mason’s youth, Linklater nimbly slips the film in and around them. There is no big prom night or awkward first fumblings with a girl. Time is marked in part by a carefully choreographed soundtrack (Coldplay and Cat Power giving way to Wilco and the Black Keys as the years pass and Mason’s character comes into focus) and pop culture-historical signposts (everything from a Harry Potter midnight release party to Samantha’s scene-stealing Britney Spears dance number and the twins putting up Obama-Biden yard signs for their politically outspoken dad). Mason’s parents are one constant, particularly Hawke, playing yet another immature striving artiste, barreling into the film one year after another as the fun, irresponsible dad who is also the only adult who seems to know how to talk to children. There aren’t any sharp cuts signifying a jump ahead. Mason simply appears in frame, a little taller, his kiddie cut giving way to shaggier mops, voice deeper.
Unlike the every-minute-counts real-time immediacy of the Before films, thick as they are with verbal jousting and battling worldviews, this is a plainspoken work. Boyhood ambles along its path in an unhurried way, so that when a moment strikes a chord, it resonates. A scene of domestic abuse shocks for how matter-of-factly it is portrayed and how quickly it’s moved past. Linklater avoids the calculated emotional blow-ups and revelatory insights common to most fiction about the young. Like many children, Mason’s response to moments of stress is simple and effective: a mute stare.
Linklater’s hand deftly reorders the film as he goes. It actually seems to grow up with Mason as he transforms from a towheaded boy happy with his bike and video games to a quasi-punk photographer. The first few years are shot in flat daytime tones, with nothing approaching lyricism (except that expansive opening shot of Mason gazing into the cloudy sky). Linklater uses tight framing to better show the limited nature of Mason’s view on the world, and spends almost more time on the adults around Mason than the boy himself.
As Mason ages and finds his voice — the moment he starts actually speaking in complete sentences is a big one — the look of the film deepens and colors. Once the story starts to shift out of the small towns and suburbs Mason’s family is always moving to (his mother choosing one bad husband after another), the camerawork turns richer and more vibrant. It’s as though Mason is waking up to the world, just in time for this evolutionary drama to come to an end in a scatter of small, sparkling epiphanies that leave you like his parents, deeply horrified at time’s relentless speed, and marveling at the chrysalis that has just happened before their eyes.