Cinematography: Lee Daniel & Shane F. Kelly; Editing: Sandra Adair
Production Design: Rodney Becker & Guy Studebaker; Set Decoration: Melanie Ferguson; Costumes: Kari Perkins
Stars: Ellar Coltrane (Mason Evans Jr.), Patricia Arquette (Olivia), Ethan Hawke (Mason Evans Sr.), Lorelei Linklater (Samantha Evans), Marco Perella (Bill Welbrock), Brad Hawkins (Jim), Jenni Tooley (Annie), Bill Wide (Steve), Zoe Graham (Sheena), Charlie Sexton (Jimmy), Richard Robichaux (Mason’s boss), Barbara Chisholm (Carol)
Released by IFC Films, writer-director Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has the bittersweet, existential quality of European cinema, as well as an inclination to elevate the average and unexceptional in a life goes on way that has become a hallmark of indies. Meaning it will be a doubly trying experience for many moviegoers less interested in cinematic experimentation than a smooth evening’s entertainment. Linklater began filming in 2002, returning each year to map the aging process of his young subject Ellar Coltrane, who was cast in the leading role of Mason when he was six and wrapped shooting at the age of eighteen, capturing the most fascinatingly formative years in a child’s physical and emotional development.
The commitment of cast and crew in seeing this warmly humanistic labor of love through is commendable, but Boyhood is a movie one admires more for the director’s ambitious aspirations than for what he was actually able to achieve through such highly unorthodox means. The greatest home movie ever made, the story behind the making of Boyhood might have been more compelling than what actually ended up on the screen. Cinema history is rife with tales of artists struggling to gain financing as backing fell through and movies were pieced together over a number of years, but next to the Up documentaries (at last count Michael Apted had devoted fifty years to his project, making Linklater’s time seem a pittance by comparison) Boyhood might take the cake for the longest single act of continuous, sequential moviemaking to date. From the perspective of fictional drama, only Francois Truffaut’s use of Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose 400 Blows character he sustained over the course of several decades as he grew into manhood readily begs comparison, and even those releases were staggered.
Linklater has been building up to Boyhood slowly through the years, conditioning himself with his equally impressive Before trilogy which poignantly captured the impact of the passing years on an idealistic young couple played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, the way non-linear movies like Two for the Road had in the past. Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004) and Before Midnight (2013) covered a full twenty years in its characters’ lives and, taken as a consecutive body of work, proved equally concerned with time and its bearing on people’s perspectives and relationships as they matured and changed. The incrementing length between sequels imparted additional weight and gravitas to proceedings so that each time Linklater dropped in again his story had gained greater insight and perspective. Given that each film came out nearly a decade apart, like silver anniversaries, it’s likely that Linklater’s idea to check back in periodically, revisiting the same characters and places, was inspired by the grand design he had cooking on the back-burner for Boyhood. His Before movies now prove to have just been prepping us for this ambitious, long-term pièce de résistance.
Commenced between his first two Before films, Boyhood toys with the concept of transience much as the earlier trilogy had, betraying a similar physiognomical fascination with the aging process. Linklater’s trilogy unflinchingly recorded the toll taken on characters by the ravages of time while Boyhood takes a pediatric interest in charting the growth and development of a child into adolescence and on through early adulthood. All that’s missing is a split screen to make the clinical comparisons more complete, so in its way Linklater’s latest movie feels just as anatomically exploitative of his aging actors as his earlier ones had. The primary difference is that the Before trilogy followed its romantic young couple into disillusioned middle age, a theme which has been assigned to the parents and relegated secondary space by Boyhood. As the title indicates, the emphasis has shifted to the beginnings of life, rather than its cynical sunset years, when everything is still laid out before one on the untraveled road ahead. Boyhood ends where the Before films began, with its bright young protagonist in his early twenties, and in sentiment plays like prelude. What Boyhood lacks in age and wisdom, it makes up for in wide-eyed, good-natured optimism. The auteur is not just reliving his own youth here, but recycling many of the same sentiments evoked in his earlier screen successes.
Considering Coltrane’s character, Mason Jr., has been conceived as Ethan Hawke’s spiritual heir from the Before films, it makes perfect sense that he should be cast as his son here. M.J. even lurches into similar, pontificating, self-conscious treatises on the meaning of life, the sort of diatribes only philosophy majors and beatniks in coffee houses actually enjoy listening to, while the rest of us endure them, the way an indulgent parent humors a precocious child. Linklater wrote the first film in his trilogy, Before Sunrise, in the mid-’90s when the art of dialogue was experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to moviemakers like Tarantino and the Coen brothers, who had an uncanny ear for vernacular poetry. Boyhood tries to capture the gold in everyday speech, the cadence of language as it’s actually spoken, but it’s only half successful in this attempt. The overlapping dialogue of Boyhood seems as much a result of improvisation as careful scripting.
The professional relationship between Ethan Hawke, who appears here as Mason’s father, and Linklater will one day be acknowledged as among the most artistically productive collaborations in screen history, or at least on par with that of Johnny Depp and Tim Burton. The two have persevered throughout the Before series and the director’s homage to it in his rotoscoped Waking Life, which sought to bring a heightened reality to animated film by painting over photographs. Boyhood should be regarded as Hawke’s magnum opus as much as Linklater’s since the sub-theme of growing up onscreen is his story as much as anyone’s (Patricia Arquette, as Mason’s mother Olivia, started young as well, she was still a teenager when she appeared in her first films). Like Boyhood’s main character, Hawke has been making movies since he was knee-high to a grasshopper, growing up before our eyes. Beginning as a child star in the ’80s, becoming a guru of the indie grunge movement of the ’90s and now seguing into genteel, Old Hollywood respectability, he’s experienced first-hand the growing pains of an awkward adolescence lived out publicly, in front of the prying camera. So Hawke was likely instrumental in helping shepherd Linklater’s latest young protégé through the angst. It helped a great deal that the movie wasn’t released until the growth spurt had ended, allowing Coltrane to enjoy being a child in relative anonymity for as long as possible, experiencing the sort of ordinary boyhood the movie tries to capture as it unravels in comparative real-time.
With episodic check-ins at different points on the calendar, Boyhood feels much like that growth chart etched into the doorway Mason’s mother must paint over before vacating the premises. Allowing us to visually register changes in height, weight, bone structure, the onset of puberty and beyond, the movie itself is a cinematic notch measurement, plotting every year in the protagonist’s life as diligently as the annual growth rings in a tree. But by letting his film ramble, in long-term, Linklater loses dramatic focus, meaning Boyhood isn’t satisfactorily explored to the same dramatic degree as the director’s earlier films on the aging process. Instead he’s working in the Malick manner, and the daunting amount of footage he collected, correlated and had cut down into more clearly delineated form by editor Sandra Adair, seems to have overwhelmed his sensibilities at times. He meanders like Malick, rather than just getting on with it, making one wonder how much material was actually expunged. When their mother relocates Mason and his older sister, and the children are instructed to join in the Texas pledge of allegiance, observant viewers may be put directly in mind of Malick’s own interpretation of boyhood in the Waco-set Tree of Life. But while just as daringly experimental in its own way, Linklater’s film eschews rite of passage mysticism in favor of a neo-realism meant to more closely approximate life.
Boyhood is more biologically minded, a big screen experiment seemingly inspired by all those old educational films about puberty and you embarrassed students were forced to suffer through in health class. The director is delving into the mysteries of the organism here, cinema crossing over into the realms of anatomy, anthropology and sociology to find out what makes people tick, what shapes character, molds personality, turns individuals into the person they ultimately become. But Boyhood doesn’t satisfactorily answer the central question it raises concerning this wellspring of character. While we stand witness to the major events that serve to shape Mason’s young life, there appears to be no clearly defined psychological segue between the kid he once was and the man he grows into. While those still wondering what happened to the little boy they used to coo over might find this unbridgable gap between cause and effect true to life, the job of art is to connect those dots and draw out the associations we wouldn’t normally perceive on our own. When Boyhood begins, Coltrane seems an unusually quiet, pensive child yet becomes more inhibited, closed off and unsure of himself. He gives far less to the camera as he moves into adolescence, becoming more guarded and self-conscious. Yet by picture’s end, he’s exuding an aura of smooth self-confidence. What happened? Most movie actors have it hard enough trying to sustain their character arc with scripts being shot out of sequence, precluding the possibility of creating and building a character linearly, as they do on stage, but pity the plight of Boyhood’s poor performers trying to stay convincingly in character for over a decade, as they weaved in and out of their roles. Audiences have probably never spent so much screen time observing characters changing and growing, only to walk away at the end feeling as though they never really knew them at all. As Mason’s mother states, she could learn more about her kids from Facebook than their uncommunicative dinner conversation. The character of Mason’s sister Samantha, played by the director’s daughter Lorelei Linklater, moves along an opposite path. She seems annoyingly mouthy and obnoxious at first, only to become far more agreeable as the years wear on. She’s very funny and endearing when being grilled by her father about her first boyfriend and lectured on the birds and the bees in a scene I’m sure director and daughter could relate to. But the last we see of her she likewise appears to have become warily watchful and muted, far removed from the bombastic adolescent we first saw. And it’s not just the kids who are affected by the film’s choppiness. We can’t figure out what motivates the mood swings and personality changes in the adults either.
Mason Sr. somewhere along the line, for instance, decides to forsake his cherished, long-held rock ’n’ roll dreams to settle down and become a soccer dad. And when Mason’s advised to start a band to get girls, the movie never addresses the obvious thought that occurs to us whether that was the reason his father became a singer, much less if this was what contributed to his divorce. After their mother flees her second marriage, we never learn how the kids adjust to their new surroundings and lower-income bracket. And while we’re arrested by the physical similarities, the movie fails to acknowledge why Mason’s first crush, the blond girl he walks home from school, so clearly resembles the little blond girl who cheered him by telling him his severe crew cut looked cool several scenes earlier. Fascinating questions keep being raised at the periphery of the action without being addressed, such as why it was once feared Mason was dyslexic after he failed first grade or whether that alcoholic professor Olivia marries begins to patronize and belittle her because he resents having married a woman of lesser intellect.
Boyhood seems littered with unresolved headscratchers and lost opportunities, issues that are introduced without ever seeming to build to anything, making it clear that early outlines were being scrapped and revised to keep pace with changing circumstances, life being allowed to dictate art to an undue degree here. The film was conceived to evolve along with its characters, structured to bend any which way the wind blew. The screenplay was nominated for an Oscar but one can’t help wondering what kind of preliminary outline could have organized the direction the movie ultimately took, or if evolving events didn’t more likely shape the script as shooting went along, leaving it to be penciled in as life unfolded around it. When we check back in at erratic intervals, characters have done a dramatic about-face without affording us a clue as to what’s been going on in their heads during the lag time between segments. Because the movie is pieced together in twelve acts, each part equating with one year in its protagonist’s life, changes that occurred gradually over time seem far too abrupt when placed back to back. Boyhood skims the surface, the format making us feel less like we were living these kids’ lives right alongside them as they grow up, than dropping in periodically simply to take stock, the way Linklater did during shooting.
A major reason we never quite understand how anything that’s come before has impacted the person Mason grows into is due to the fact that Linklater is engaged in such a delicate balancing act. He’s trying to construct enough drama to hold audience interest while at the same time maintaining a dispassionate objectivity, his Boyhood recording the aging process from unobtrusive arm’s length so the presence of cameras don’t negatively impact the psyche, self-image and emotions of a sensitive youngster as he awkwardly fumbles through his own adolescence, on camera and off. The director gives his young subject his space, respecting his privacy by keeping his distance and like a documentarian capturing undiluted reality, wants to suppress any undue excitement that could distort the film’s unobstructed view of natural human development. He wants to let the child’s personality emerge on its own rather than forcing the issue for the purpose of drama, not wanting to impose his own expectations on who he’d like him to be. Over the many years of shooting, Linklater must have intentionally left the collected material loose, formless and open-ended, postponing shaping it until the person his boy was becoming began to take form and come into clear focus, like the pictures Mason develops in his darkroom. His approach is similar to certain Native Americans cultures which don’t name tribal members until they have a better idea of who they are as individuals. The question the character’s photography mentor poses to him, “What do you want to be, Mason? “What do you want to do?” is the same one the script is seeking an answer to. Consequently, no cohesive dramatic vision has been overlaid upon the film, though like any aimless youngster Boyhood could have used some guidance counseling to give it definite direction.
Feeling less like fictional narrative than kitchen sink slice-of-life, Boyhood is the sort of film one can easily describe as being about nothing. This chronicle approached in pseudo-documentary fashion walks that fine line between the actual and the staged in a manner intended to make us ponder how much of what we see was invented out of whole cloth for the main character and how much is intended to reflect the actual experiences of the actor playing him (all appearances aside, Coltrane has claimed that despite his input, the film is based more on the director’s boyhood than his own). In this sense, the movie’s a memory piece played out in real time, allowing Linklater to relive his own youth by proxy, and one can sense him organically pulling material from his memory bank of past experience, which makes Boyhood more embarrassingly autobiographical for the filmmaker than for the little boy we watch grow up in it. For all we know this entire enterprise might be an extended, turgid, dramatic recreation. But the incontrovertible fact that this kid is growing into adulthood right before our eyes can’t help but transform proceedings into some sort of factual, first-person account. The verisimilitude of the life cycle as it actually occurs can be glimpsed in the snatches of reality seeping between the convolutions of the narrative.
With art imitating life to the physical degree it does here, criticism of the film seems tantamount to trivializing the experiences of the people and events depicted in it, the way it sometimes seems with documentaries. Though any similarity to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental, Linklater’s approach is still intended to impart the erroneous impression that, as a film, Boyhood holds grander truths than the general run by presenting incontrovertible evidence that its subject’s youth was unfolding while the cameras were rolling. One feels watching Coltrane grow up onscreen bonds him more closely with the character he’s playing, affording us greater insight, the way it does when actors’ real, tabloid lives dovetail with the plot of the film they’re appearing in, allowing more method emotions to emerge. But apart from the passage of time we visually register, as the movie traces the budding of its human time-lapse flower in a manner fit for high school anatomy courses, Boyhood is no more honest or true than any other, more conventionally structured coming of age drama. Rather than the camera capturing real events on the cuff, the characters were instructed to walk through the same prearranged storyboards as in any other fiction film. So as close to real life as Boyhood seems to get, it remains purely prefabricated fiction.
Still, the director seems to have fallen for his own subliminal suggestion that the kid playing the part and the character he’s playing are virtually one and the same, striving to forge some crossover synergy between real life and reel life. He seems to have been hoping to define Mason’s character through some spiritual transmutative process, convinced it would be clarified without any undue influence on his part as actor Coltrane grew into manhood and his own nascent identity began to assert itself. The camera remains rooted on the character searchingly, waiting to capture the instant the person he’ll become can be discerned, but for all we can tell it just keeps staring impassively. With Boyhood consciously avoiding clear dramatic arcs, one can never be quite sure when or if our sense of who Mason is as a person was meant to have emerged, something a more conventionally structured movie would have left us in no doubt about. For the majority of the film the character is stuck in that maddening in-between state where he’s no longer a boy yet not quite a man, unable to move either forward or back, and as he keeps getting bigger and bigger with the movie registering only the most superficial of surface changes, we come to realize we aren’t getting any clearer an impression of him. Instead what Boyhood discovers is that who we are and the person we grow into doesn’t occur instantaneously, at the onset of adulthood, like flipping a light switch. It’s an ongoing, lifelong work in progress with Mason remaining as much in search of himself at the end as his parents have been the entire film long, struggling to define themselves. Maybe Linklater fully intends to check back in on the character in another twelve years for a follow-up, as he did in the Before series, to see if Mason remains as comfortably settled in his own skin as he appears to be at movie’s end. By then that film, Manhood, might have obtained enough hindsight and perspective to shape up into something truly profound.
Because it was taken at intervals, Boyhood seems frustratingly episodic, glancing over far too many of the major, life-changing events in its young protagonist’s early life. Worse, there seems no rhyme or reason why some situations are emphasized and others deep-sixed. In the interest of staying unpredictably true to life, Linklater’s approach, dramatically speaking, consists of stringing together a series of opening and closing acts while jettisoning the main show. His Boyhood wants to stress the importance of embracing life’s simple pleasures by memorializing the taken for granted moments in amber, so the story has been comprised of snips and snails and puppy dog tails. As in Our Town, we witness what forms the fabric of these characters’ lives while they’re too distracted and busy making other plans to take much notice themselves.
Boyhood’s focus is not on the big, world-shaking events, but the minutiae that leave a deeper mark on impressionable young people, such as when Mason must move to Texas and say goodbye to everything he’s ever known. In an intensely poignant scene that seems intended to evoke Terms of Endearment, his friends bicycle by the departing car as it speeds away, waving goodbye for the last time. It’s a shot later echoed when Mason’s mother flees her abusive second spouse, the camera capturing her car from a similar vantage, speeding away as the stepchildren she’d been mothering are abandoned to their biological father’s questionable care. The permanent scars such seemingly transitory, insignificant events can have on growing children, as opposed to adults, is emphasized in a scene where Mason reminds his father of a promise he made ages ago to give him his car when he turned sixteen, same way his sister has never forgotten their parent’s acrimonious marital spats, which Mason was too young to have any recollection of.
Film is traditionally described as ‘life with the boring parts edited out’ but Boyhood seeks realism by leaving in everything a more prudent director would excise, under the impression that this confers greater verisimilitude upon proceedings. Playing down the life changing moments that comprise most movies, it rambles along more like a steady stream than a series of dramatic exigencies. The film makes a frustrating point of not showing us those benchmark moments in life the mother mentions near the end so we seem to be missing all Mason’s signature milestones, like that absentee dad, catching up with him again only after he’s evolved to the next stage in his development. While privy to the prelude, we’re shut out from some of the kid’s most important rites of passage, which is odd considering Boyhood’s concern with the ticking biological clock. The protagonist’s actual maturation seems to be happening on the sidelines, at the periphery of the screen, without ever taking center stage. When Mason raises his arm, unconsciously revealing he’s grown hair under there, we have no idea when he hit puberty for instance. And though the loss of one’s virginity is the major life-defining moment in the lives of most young people, Boyhood politely skims over the subject of sex, tossing it off with some light locker room bulling sessions.
We can only speculate as to when this kid busted his cherry (somewhere between being a lifeless lump and an artistically adventurous photographer?), so when his straying girlfriend asks Mason if he’s been with anyone besides her, it dawns on us that we really have no way of knowing if he’s lying to her or not. Most people rhapsodize over their sweet sixteenth birthday but for some reason it’s Mason’s fifteenth birthday that Boyhood chooses to highlight, and when his American Gothic grandparents give the kid a gun for a present we get the discomfiting impression that we’re witnessing the genesis of Columbine. We don’t see Mason’s graduation but the party that follows it and instead or showing us the requisite teenage ritual of prom, Linklater concentrates on Mason’s devastating breakup immediately before the big event, leaving his father to comfort him with the thought that such ill-starred high school romances are doomed from the outset because teenagers are still in hormonal flux and fated to outgrow them. Not knowing who they are themselves, it’s too much to expect them to know who they want to spend the rest of their lives with.
Boyhood hasn’t been shaped to any real dramatic purpose, given structure, energy, scope or drive. It all feels strangely enervated with only occasional jolts of electricity, such as the violence of the second husband, to startle us out of our complacency. Linklater wants events to hit us the way they would in life, but if we wanted to experience humdrum reality as it’s lived we wouldn’t bother going to the movies. The director hit upon a unique creative angle in making this movie over the course of a decade, but he hasn’t found a way to fully bring out the material in an equally novel manner. All about the beginning of life, this stillborn movie fails to launch in the satisfying way we keep expecting it to. On occasion, the dramatist in Linklater asserts himself. He realizes he’s caught gold for instance with that wired restaurant owner played by Richard Robichaux who he brings back for an encore, instinctively sensing that he possesses the acting charge missing from the rest of the low-key cast, who are too busy striving for authenticity to bother engaging or amusing the audience. Though it’s just as essential an element of the immature adolescent makeup, Linklater has inexplicably left out of his mix so much of life’s comedy that the lead is made to seem like an eternally angst-ridden gloomy Gus.
A problem with Boyhood, and it was a problem with the Before trilogy as well, is that Linklater’s ardent young protagonists always take themselves and their principled, philosophic ideals so damned seriously. For all the artistic maturing he’s done over the past few decades, the director still doesn’t appear to have reached that point where he’s capable of laughing at himself, seeing the humor and absurdity in life, or if he has, hasn’t become secure enough in his talent to let it seep into his scripts. Only a few amusingly sustained exceptions occur such as when Mason’s mother drops her temperamental daughter off at her new school, and in Ethan Hawke’s early scenes as the absent dad desperate to make a favorable impression on his kids in his fleeting snatches of time with them. Cramming in a maximum amount of fun in as short a space as possible, he always seems to be ‘on,’ performing not just for his kids, but for the audience with a delightfully deft, light touch. Otherwise, every peak and valley of Mason’s maturation is treated by Boyhood as though it were a National Geographic special where we need fear all the cubs won’t make it to spring. Linklater approached the most carefree time in a person’s life the way teenagers themselves see it, as a matter of life and death.
Linklater took a big gamble in casting, since there was no way he could know at the time if he’d started with the right kid, one who could be relied on to sustain his work consistently over time, hold the screen and mature into the sort of person audiences would be invested in. Hedging his bets, the director shrewdly cast his daughter as backup, in the reassuring knowledge that at least one child would still be available for filming even if the others flaked out (becoming bored with the process around year four, she requested that her character be killed off). His casting of Lorelei indicates the new-found parental pride that likely inspired him to embark upon this movie in the first place, a side project they could work on together over summer vacations. Boyhood was a tax deductible way for father to spend quality family time with his daughter, rather than missing all her first baby steps because he was off shooting on location somewhere.
Despite the irony of choosing a little boy as his subject, perhaps to deflect charges of nepotism, making this movie allowed Linklater to preserve an equally permanent record of his own progeny’s childhood, in full knowledge of how quickly it would have passed otherwise. But in Boyhood it’s not just these two kids who age but all the supers in the cast as well so heaven forbid anything happen to them in the interim between shoots, that they be physically changed in unanticipated or even alarming ways. Yet the film is so fluid even that could have been worked into proceedings someway. Given the slackness of the material it would have been a simple matter to write out certain characters, work around them, or simply incorporate their changing circumstances to further serve as evidence of heightened realism, art imitating life. People just fade in and out of Mason’s life throughout Boyhood, coming and going in a manner that’s meant to be true to life, while the director seeks to capture the inestimable impact they can leave on others in even the briefest stint of time. Proving that words have power, for instance, Olivia’s gardener is inspired to better himself by a chance comment she makes, taking her words of encouragement to heart. “You guys should listen to your mother, she’s a smart woman,” he opines, proving how securely such lessons take root in the fertile imagination of pupils, that the years she’d devoted to teaching hadn’t been as entirely in vain as she’d feared. Yet for all the characters who pop back in later for a reprise, dropping in like distant acquaintances one hasn’t seen in years, we never learn what became of those poor step kids Mason’s mother was forced to abandon. They just disappear from his life for good and all though it’s their dubious fate that nags at us most.
With its semi-annual updates, Boyhood seems as episodic as Same Time, Next Year only here the characters are meant to be taken as universal representatives of the American experience, archetypal figures almost, rather than mirror reflections of the changing times. But there was no way while he was in the moment that Linklater could have been certain how to anchor Boyhood to the specific place and period. Precious few films have managed to capture the zeitgeist of their times as they were actually unfolding. Only Medium Cool really springs to mind and that too was done in a similar docudrama style, blurring the line between art and reality. Trying to tag the period, Linklater uses images of the War on Terror in the wake of 9/11, Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun” and other contemporary music, passing reference to the Harry Potter and Twilight fads, idle speculation if Hollywood will ever make another Star Wars movie, Obama-Biden campaign posters, the ascension of Facebook, firmly rooting Boyhood in the first few years of the new millennium and suggesting that the director was aspiring to make his own centennial document starting from Year One and working his way forward, the growth and maturation of his main character reflecting the evolution of the century itself. But these ambitious aspirations prove impossible to attain because Linklater is still too close to the period to have any perspective on the signature styles that will come to define it.
Based on Boyhood, one would think things haven’t progressed too terribly much in the last decade. Even the election of America’s first black president is skimmed over for all the impact such world events have wielded on the workaday world at the grassroots level. Asked by a conservative neighbor who they’re voting for, the kids’ ironic response is “Bush – our dad’s a big supporter,” recalling their father’s earlier tirade against the sitting president. When Boyhood begins, the clothes and hair and production design don’t seem so drastically different from today. Intergenerational shifts take at least twenty years before they’re crystallized in the pop culture conscience, the major signposts of a time agreed upon and used as sociological shorthand to indicate an entire era. So a decade is far too condensed a period to allow us to see actual change taking place. But while it fails to capture the evolution of the wider world at the fringe of the frame, Boyhood couldn’t help but become something of a time capsule, however inadvertently, courtesy of the incontrovertible changes registered in the visages of its actors as they age. Somewhere along the line Linklater seems to have caught on to the fact that Mason was growing and physically changing in far more dramatic ways than the world around him. Because his movie becomes more absorbed in its central character’s specific experience as time wears on, to the point of masking out everything around him so that he seems to exist in his own private bubble. The title sets the film up as an archetypal story, focused on a common experience shared by all, this boy meant to be every boy, his youth the sum total of the average, all-American childhood. Mason is a new Tom Sawyer for our modern times, but considering how drastically different the American experience can range from person to person, it’s debatable if Linklater managed to capture the essence of boyhood as he sought to, if it’s even possible to in this day and age given the importance of appreciating our diversity.
Despite the director’s dogged effort to naturalistically capture this one representative experience as lived out at the dawn of a new century, Boyhood becomes a traditional rite of passage into manhood movie. Mason’s youth has been made to seem so unsingularized and generalized it could apply to just about anybody, so if there doesn’t appear to be anything particularly notable about him that’s precisely the effect Linklater was going for. But then, being ordinary means nothing out of the norm really happens to the character during the course of the film either. As Mason drives off to his freshman year of college, the self-declamatory theme song playing on the soundtrack is Family of the Year’s “Hero,” with lyrics indicating he’s nothing special, just an average Joe who doesn’t want to be held up to higher expectations. All the other characters in Boyhood have likewise been scaled to recognizably human dimensions.
But despite Boyhood’s desire to chronicle an ‘average’ childhood, it’s unlikely many experienced it with a camera constantly trained on them. As has been argued about actual documentarians and news cameramen, Linklater’s very presence distorts the ‘normal’ experience he’s trying to capture for posterity. When shooting wrapped, highly articulate lead Coltrane admitted being unable to remember a time when a film crew wasn’t in his life and it’s unclear how this kid, who’d sacrificed so much of his youth tied up in this long-term project, felt about his own boyhood being periodically interrupted by transient Hollywood wayfarers as the cameras returned sporadically to invade and disrupt his life at predetermined stages in development. Linklater must have seemed as equally impermanent a presence in his life as his character’s sometime dad, casually swanning in and out on some will-o’-the-wisp to further protract his fifteen minutes into twelve years. And imagine the infernal consternation of this little shaver trapped in the no man’s land of never released, swearing up and down to all his friends that he was appearing in a movie with major Hollywood stars and able to produce no evidence to substantiate the claim. Vindication must feel sweet, even at this late stage.
In his willingness to follow through with a commitment made so early in life, Coltrane displays a dedication equal to Linklater’s and one must admire his readiness to be so glaringly exposed by the camera, especially during his painfully self-conscious teen years once his hormones exploded, when all most kids want to do is meld into the woodwork by succumbing to peer pressure and becoming part of the crowd. But despite his careful handling, there’s something indecent and mercenary about such fishbowl scrutiny which turns its young protagonist’s life into that of glorified guinea pig, a test subject for an artist’s ambitious experimentation. In a misguided stab at cinematic greatness, the director’s made light of this boy’s life experiences by appropriating them for textural coloring, to the point where they no longer belong to Coltrane as much as they do the film, having become fodder for Linklater’s art. Just by being there, recording him, the director destroyed any prospect of Coltrane’s having the ‘average’ boyhood he was trying to capture. In a sense, his intrusive camera ruined his subject for life and the extent of the young man’s sense of abandonment now that he no longer has this annual filming ritual to fall back on must be considerable.
Still, however unethical, the prospect of watching Coltrane grow remains Boyhood’s basic hook, what causes it to stand out as something different, the sole animal trick that keeps audiences riveted from one episode to the next. Though the film is fictional, our fascination lies less in observing the scripted changes occurring in the Mason character than it does the unconscious changes in the physique of the actor portraying him, the movie using his maturing body as visual metaphor for how quickly time flies. It’s Coltrane’s periodic growth spurts which are used to signal us to scene shifts, the way changes in costumes, hairstyles, props and makeup normally would. Movies generally employ greasepaint and prosthetics to prematurely age performers into geriatrics, or employ multiple actors to play characters at different stages in life. Boyhood tries to retain a closer affinity with reality by forgoing this expediency and actually giving its actor the unhurried time to age gracefully on screen. At times, the effect is not unlike binge watching a favorite television series, in which several seasons of broadcasting have been condensed, allowing us to observe young characters grow into adulthood all in the space of a few marathon viewing sessions.
We’ve become inured to watching child stars grow up on screen; we watched it happen with Ethan Hawke and it’s a common occurrence in ongoing franchises and sequels that span years. Being able to capture the process for posterity is the medium’s gift and its curse, since actors are haunted by and constantly being compared against their own youthful image, especially child stars who find it difficult living down that onus in order to establish themselves as adults. Yet we’ve never seen the genuine aging process happen in such a radical manner over the course of the same sequentially shot movie, even when snippets from an actor’s earlier films are spliced in, because the logistics of filmmaking simply preclude the amount of vested time necessary to make that possible. Watching the evolution played out in real time brings movie magic closer to the nature of documentary, which is what gives us the false impression that Boyhood is more realistic than your average film.
Common sentiments we throw out there all the time, such as “I can’t believe how big he’s gotten,” take on epic spiritual connotations when we can actually observe time pass in this way. To help make Linklater’s point, other characters in the film likewise marvel at how much Mason has grown since the last time they saw him, such as his father’s old roommate Jimmy (Charlie Sexton) when he sees M.J. again after so many years, dedicating a song to him from stage, just as the director has dedicated this movie, and his sister does when Carol (Barbara Chisholm), the friend who let Olivia stay at her house after she left her second husband, brings her daughter Abby (Cassidy Johnson) to Mason’s graduation. Baby pictures of Mason litter the mise-en-scène to further emphasize the age discrepancy as the years evaporate. We’re watching the miracle of life unfold before our eyes, Boyhood becoming the human equivalent of the Indian mango tree trick as we check back in at intervals to monitor Mason’s developmental progress from clean shaven, baby smooth romper to the grungy onset of peach fuzzed adolescence to filled out early adulthood. This kid seems to grow up quicker than a daytime soap star, and the resulting movie has a tendency to come across like a lugubrious before & after photo shoot intended to inspire awe at the human capacity for physical change and admiration for the painstaking dedication and patience required of a director to so methodically monitor it.
Mason’s sister seems to top out and stop maturing at a certain point, while he keeps right on sprouting like a bean pole and audiences are encouraged to ogle him in delectation, our anatomical fascination fully justified since the changes registered in children over a decade are so much more readily apparent than in an adult. Unceremoniously peeping in on his burgeoning pubescence, there’s a peculiarly prurient fascination in Boyhood’s preoccupation with capturing the physical development of this little boy as he fills out into the size and shape of a fully matured man, inspiring adults who have known him since childhood to start making passes, Mrs. Robinson-style. But when the camera goes further, following him into the bedroom it just gets icky and uncomfortable. Maybe once you see someone grow up before your eyes you always think of them as a tiny little baby, precluding the possibility of regarding them as a fully matured, sexual being.
Like the proud parent the director was, we worry and wonder how this kid will turn out over the course of twelve years, especially when we see all the warning signs looming on the horizon. He stares out the window all day or spaces to video games for instance, which were, in the early years of this new century, already being demonized for killing kids’ attention spans and contributing to the ADD epidemic, while his grandmother showers all her attention on his intelligent older sister with the A+ school papers. Despite being a largely absent presence in his son’s life, his irresponsible musician father is the only one who pays any attention to Mason’s rock collection, making him feel both special and as though he must compete with his sibling for attention in those fleeting instances when their father’s around. Yet as the movie wears on and Mason metamorphoses from a painfully awkward, self-conscious adolescent, the actor playing him becomes much more adept a performer, confident before the camera and self-assured in his line readings. To underline the point, the new girl his Mason meets at college says the graceful kids she tutors in dance haven’t reached those awkward years yet, the ones we’ve just weathered through with him.
Yet despite his bumpy patches, Coltrane proves worth following through to adulthood, showing all our parental anxieties about how children will turn out to be fruitless. Capturing his young subject as he grows up to be movie star handsome, the director turns Boyhood into a covert celebration of the ascendance of a polished new Hollywood star. Coltrane wasn’t allowed to make any other high-profile movies while locked into this project and it’s likely Linklater has been withholding him all this time so that the big reveal would have more impact upon release, which it certainly wouldn’t have had if we’d already watched him growing up onscreen throughout the years. It’s not clear at this point if Coltrane intends to go on pursuing acting professionally, but if so he’s in something of a bind. Boyhood plays so close to reality in the way it was planned and shot, the perception is that he’s just playing himself, rather than giving an actual performance, placing him in the same awkward position those Blair Witch performers found themselves in, receiving no forthcoming offers of employment despite the phenomenal success of their found footage film.
Linklater’s movie thrives on its cast of real kids as opposed to experienced Hollywood child stars, seeking to capture the spontaneity of real life in their nonprofessional deliveries, lack of poise and impulsive behavior. The problem with using amateurs however, especially underage ones, is that they lack the screen presence of professionals, not having acquired the skills necessary to hold an audience. Consequently, it’s the seasoned vets who anchor Boyhood, their well-honed talents offsetting the amateurish performances of the untrained adolescent stars. And the adult actors made just as significant an investment of time in this intimate, offbeat project as the youngsters, devoting a considerable chunk of their own lives to seeing the film through, a fact which has been discounted because watching them age simply isn’t as visually arresting. We don’t see the time passing as dramatically in them as we do their kids.
This isn’t just because physical changes in adults over a decade aren’t as marked, but also because Hawke and co-star Patricia Arquette, as Mason’s embattled parents, have remained in the public eye all this time. Because of this, to our minds, the changes in their looks happened far more gradually, rather than being spaced out like successive ta-dahhhs over the course of three hours. We need only go back and stream some of their earlier work to relive the aging process with them all over again. Because they’ve already plateaued at the beginning of Boyhood the wrinkles and spread are far less distracting, allowing us to focus more on their performances. Yet though they don’t physically change as much as the kids, emotionally and spiritually they continue evolving beneath the surface just as dramatically. Boyhood turns out to be as much about the parents’ growth, their life journey, as it does Mason’s. Like Linklater’s Before trilogy, their sub-story is about idealistic, youthful dreams, his and hers, and how they’re somehow lost sight of over time, how things never turn out the way we expect.
Patricia Arquette’s Olivia says she was shunted from being somebody’s daughter to being somebody’s mother without any stasis in-between to learn how to just be herself. Possessing no separate identity apart from all the access baggage, she spends the film flitting about trying to find herself, define who she is as a person, same way her son does. In her own way the mother remains in as big a state of arrested adolescence as her husband, struggling to grow up right alongside her children. It proves a painful, prolonged process of trial and error, during which she ends up sculpting her own unformed identity along the way. “Take care of your dad,” a liquor salesman tells Mason, “You only got the one.” But the irony is that he will have several different fathers over the course of his childhood as his mother keeps marrying the wrong sort, invariably overbearing alcoholics, making the same mistake over and over again. Caught in a vicious cycle, the increasingly well-educated Olivia still seems incapable of making smarter choices in men.
That apparently enlightened university professor she marries (Marco Perella) behaves more like a ’50s style martinet, berating his sensitive son for his long, girlish locks and forcing him to endure a severe military crew cut, a total violation that will resonate with many kids (“He didn’t even ask. He just cut it. I mean, it’s my hair!”), even if it is still preferable to the emo bob he sports as a teen. This father’s a ramrod who runs his house like a military training camp and expects everyone to abide by his rules and toe the line (“You have so many lines,” Olivia laments.). It’s This Boy’s Life all over again, but it’s far too limiting and melodramatic for the script to ascribe the stepfather’s abusive behavior strictly to his alcoholism. Still, as this episode gets progressively darker and more disturbing, it becomes Boyhood’s most dramatically effective vignette, which is unfortunate since it occurs relatively early on. And I kept expecting M.J.’s father to get wind of the dangerous situation and intervene, but that would have been championing the sort of heroics Boyhood eschews.
Olivia’s second husband may have acted like a martinet but her third, Jim (Brad Hawkins), actually is ex-Army, a veteran of the same War on Terror that Mason’s father had so disparaged. Jim claims his platoon survived the Middle East because they treated the locals with respect, yet he’ll try to exert his dominance over his new stepson, looking down on him with disdain, impugning his burgeoning manhood same as his first stepfather did, because he doesn’t like football, doesn’t bother removing the nail polish a girl paints on him in school, and had his ears pierced the previous summer (“You got a purse to go with that?”), suggesting a similar propensity for physical violence.
He doesn’t seem so bad initially, something of a hero in fact, and the movie plays with this first impression. When he confronts Mason for coming home late for instance, it’s not to harangue him about curfew but to spring a surprise party. Yet the next time we see him, he’s devolved into as big an alcoholic stickler as the first stepfather, and we learn just as little about the reasons for the sudden change in behavior. It’s not made plain how difficult this man suffering from post-traumatic stress finds it to readjust to civilian life as he’s demoted by his country from a conquering hero to an undervalued, underpaid corrections officer.
Mason Sr. is a frustrated musician who’s abandoned wife and child to pursue his infantile ambition of becoming a rock star, a rolling stone not tied down by familial responsibility. In a word, he doesn’t want to grow up. He’s frightened of adulthood, like those older teens who spend their Fridays hanging out with eighth graders. Though Mason Sr. will eventually concede that his ex-wife did a great job raising their two children alone, his turnabout seems to ironically imply that instead of hooking up with all the wrong men, this single mother should have just ridden it out with him since he eventually becomes the sort of whipped suburban soccer dad she wanted all along. “He’s doing it all over again,” Olivia muses while watching Mason Sr. with his second family, finally stepping up and being the father he should have been for their own offspring when she needed him to be, but I suppose you can’t force it. People have to grow at their own speed; as Mason Sr. later states, “bottom line is it’s all timing with these things.” Perhaps because he has spent a lifetime watching his parents take so long to grow up themselves, Mason seems to mature at a more rapid rate. By the time he’s ready to head off to college, he’s more competent and together than either of them. And yet the movie’s idea of ‘growing up,’ which requires the father to forsake his personal ambitions to settle into a life of middle-class complacency, seems vaguely objectionable (“You can be cool like I used to be,” he advises his kid, “or you can get a minivan.”). The compromises one must make, turning their back on youthful ideals and ambitions, strikes one as a betrayal of sorts.
The optimism of kids like Mason, just starting out, is contrasted with the faded dreams of their parents who are at a point where they’re looking back and reflecting on what they’ve done with their lives. As the mother muses, shuddering at the cold winds of her own mortality while watching her last baby leave home, “My life is just going to go. Like that. This series of milestones… You know what’s next? … It’s my f*cking funeral! … I just thought there would be more.” By tracing Mason’s own artistic dreams from youthful innocence, through disillusionment, to reclamation at the cusp of adulthood, and comparing it with the parallel plight of the older generation, the director seeks to pinpoint where it all goes wrong, where people are forced to negotiate a compromise between what they want from life and what they’re realistically able to obtain. The protagonist’s loss of belief in magic, in the Harry Potter world, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy cuts deep because it tells us he too is growing up, serving as precursor to the larger disillusions to follow, forcing him to forsake daydreams for the pragmatic, workaday world of adulthood.
So it’s reaffirming when Mason proves to have retained his vivid, fertile imagination, rattling off philosophic ideas about humans becoming glorified cyborgs rewarded with an endorphin rush whenever they hear the ding of a Facebook friend request, as behaviorally conditioned as Pavlov’s dog. This shutterbug who filters life through his lens claims not to want to live on the grid, or through a plasma screen, preferring real human contact and interaction. For such a whippersnapper, schooled in computer science since the first grade and so much more technically savvy than earlier generations, he has a sage, old soul’s take on modern technology. And yet when we leave him at the end, Mason’s still Skyping long distance with his mother by phone and expresses no qualms about his college using computers to match him to a compatible roommate as if he were online dating. Just this side of an actuality, the film’s format itself argues that only the life examined through the camera lens is worth living, basically validating the modern obsession with transcribing oneself through the agency of social media.
Emotionally Boyhood really ends at Mason’s graduation party, a time reserved for remembering the past and honoring it publicly, marveling at the changes in kids poised on the cusp of adulthood, an ideal allegory for the movie itself. Linklater allows us to marvel more than most, since we too can remember back, having witnessed the green days being recalled from just a few scenes ago, making us feel as though it were just yesterday. He places us in the same emotional position as Mason’s parents, wondering where all the time went. Watching him age tends to date us in a strange way as well, prompting viewers to think back over the last decade of their own lives, to take stock, assess where they’ve been and where they’re going. This was the monumentally minuscule theme that Linklater started out with, naturally evolving from the material and emerging even more clearly over the decade the film was shot. The transience of time is never lost sight of, becoming a palpable presence in Boyhood, from the daughter’s answer during the game of charades being ‘a wrinkle in time,’ to the song played at a bar near the end with lyrics to the effect that ‘on the day I was born I started growing old,’ the grey hair said to have been found at the young age of twenty proving that even in the midst of life we are in death, the admission that hard living is going to be the end of him, the speculation at the all-night diner during a visit to his sister’s college about what Mason and his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) will be like a few years hence, the estranged Sheena’s half self-aware suggestion that Mason ‘grow up,’ his father being transfixed by an older ballplayer’s ability to strike out guys half his age. In another attempt to manipulate time by rewriting it, Mason Sr. gives his son a Beatles Black Album he’s burned by remixing songs the members recorded after the band went caput, using sound to bring the fab four back together again.
Occasionally Boyhood even emphasizes the relativity of time, comparing how swiftly it passes from people’s perspective as opposed to the epoch time spans that elapse in the natural world, cleaving out mountains and caves. When Mason Sr. takes his son camping for instance, he teaches him the environmental art of giving back to the earth what you take from it, and leaving no trace of your passing to litter the landscape. When Mason and his college friends trek through Big Bend State Park at the end, it recalls those schoolgirls’ visit to the outback in Picnic at Hanging Rock, where time seemed to stand still. In that film, a character marveled at how the rock appeared to have waited millions of years just for their arrival. Here, “It’s as if all of time had unfolded before us so we can stand here and say f*ck you.” Young people have not become more eloquent with the years.
In what seems a parody of the plastics scene in The Graduate, the adults at Mason’s party keep advising him about the career path he should pursue. But having witnessed the rocky road to a degree his mother took only to realize it doesn’t hold the answers to everything, leaving her at day’s end still just as bewildered by life as he is, he’s begun viewing the prospect of going to college as a pre-ordained slot to be fitted into and doesn’t want to allow his level of education to define his future. It’s his father’s pearl of wisdom, that he separate himself from the pack in order to stand out, that Mason takes most to heart since it’s the same life lesson Linklater has followed himself, with this off-the-beaten-path movie. It’s why Mason is encouraged to stick to his artistic guns, to hold on to his personal convictions when he feels them deeply enough, since skin thickens and toughens with time and his emotions will never be quite as receptive as they are now that he’s experiencing so many new, adult sensations for the first time. When his mother muses about the point of it all, the implication is that it’s Mason’s (and by extension Linklater’s) passion for art, for something, that makes life worth all the pain and struggle. This is really that deep and abiding love, beyond all rationale, Olivia once spoke of in her Psych 101 class.
Boyhood becomes a portrait of the artist as a young man, Mason serving as the director’s delegate when relaying his official artist’s statement to the world, professing to want to break free from the traditional constraints of classical, formal picture-taking because he finds free-forming more creatively fulfilling. Mason seems to have found his own identity, gained a more thorough sense of self and along with it a new-found self-confidence, his meaning and purpose in life through the camera. The images he captures are unique, proving he sees the world in a different light, much as Linklater’s camera proves capable of transforming the seemingly ordinary and everyday, a relatively unremarkable life like Mason’s, into something creatively stimulating and unique by making it the focal point of a film. While similar results could surely have been attained by less tortuous, more conventional methods, as Mason is told, anybody can take pictures. The challenge is to find out what makes them art, which turns out to be what the director, in trying to hewn art out of these glorified home movies is seeking to ascertain for himself, diverging from the Hollywood mold, challenging the accepted rules of commercial moviemaking with this eccentric approach to filming. Just as Boyhood snagged a slew of Oscar nominations, Mason wins a silver medal and a scholarship on the strength of his photography alone. Yet despite being embraced by the mainstream, he still fancies himself a non-conformist, giving every indication that indie director Linklater still sees himself the same way as well.
One of Hollywood’s maverick young moviemakers when he debuted in the ’90s, what marks Boyhood as the product of a more matured filmmaking mentality, is now that Linklater has some years behind him, he can better appreciate the emptying hourglass, a sentiment he tries to convey in the film. The years have allotted his deep thoughts and philosophical ruminations greater conviction as well, and Boyhood provides a perfect podium for him to pontificate, like a visiting adjunct with his captive audience. The film wraps up the director’s long held sentiments concerning the preciousness of time, the impossibility of capturing it in the hand, the way one can with a camera. He’s begun using cinema as a means to hold back the clock, preserving the passing parade for posterity. Daringly experimental in its approach to screen time, this becomes Boyhood’s theme, making it less like a film in the conventional sense than the cinematic equivalent of the Aristotelian unities, unspooling its protagonist’s life for us in what corresponds to ‘real time’ on screen.
Even as people grow older, moving into their sunset years, they can remain forever young, keeping their children babies through the power of digital technology. In the cinema actors like Hawke and Arquette remain as eternally young as Mason here, or at least as young as the first appearance they ever made on screen, awaiting to be rediscovered afresh by new generations. The sentiment expressed near the end, “Everyone says seize the moment, it’s the other way around. The moment chooses us. The moments are constant. It’s always right now,” is one only the movies could approximate, by both capturing the past and making it the viewer’s present as it unspools before them for the first time. But despite the fact that past and present can simultaneously coexist in the cinema, Linklater makes no attempt to crosscut, restraining himself from jumping back and forth in time in order to maintain the linear integrity of his vision, giving audiences the feel of a constant, forward flow that’s more true to the way they experience reality.
Boyhood’s theme, concerning the transience of time is the only one that logically could grow out of such a morass of material, and the time-lapsed way Linklater’s taken the film compliments it beautifully, form flattering subject in an unusually adept way. Tighter editing would’ve toned Boyhood up but a shortened version would have diminished the overall impact which is intended to gain in accumulative force with each passing second on the clock. The epic running time, in and of itself, serves to strengthen the theme. If the full weight of precious time weren’t allowed to amass minute by minute, we wouldn’t feel the enormity of its loss so profoundly at the end. The movie can justly claim to be backed by the full weight of the years because they’re all right up there onscreen. Mason’s growth in Boyhood, which we register almost at a subconscious level at first, swiftly starts accelerating, startling us at how drastically he’s morphed each time he makes a fresh appearance. With the last segment having ended only seconds before, he’s like a quick change artist every time he emerges from the wings and through him we can actually see and experience the alarming rate time slips by. As we observe him rapid aged, quicker than that astronaut in the last scenes of 2001, walking in one door six and out another sixteen, a full decade is compressed into the time span of three hours. The continuity must have been a bear to keep track of which may well be why Linklater keeps things so simplistic, almost pared down to a primary level.
The birth of Boyhood is Linklater’s little baby, a true labor of love, and one can feel how desperate he was to force together all the material he’d collected, fuse it into a whole. It took so long to make, and ate up so much of the director’s own filmmaking lifetime, that he would have found a way to fuse even inferior footage, by duct tape and super glue if necessary, wanting something to show for the effort. Having invested so much time and emotion in this pet project Linklater, like so many other ambitious directors in screen history, was loathe to let any of it go. Allowing editor Adair to use the scissors more liberally would have been like trashing what must surely serve as some form of visual diary to his mind, same as his young protagonist is tasked with keeping in the film. But the daunting chore of maintaining a consistent level of energy and enthusiasm over the course of more than a decade makes the flagging segments comprising Boyhood feel a bit disjointed, like the mismatched movies helmed in different periods they were. A herculean effort has been made to maintain consistency in photography and tone from shot to shot, but the energy level is erratic and the tonal rhythms off, making the overall effect feel vaguely inconsistent, even while the movie is all of a piece.
Linklater must have experienced quite a few growing pains of his own as a filmmaker, venturing into such untried and demanding territory while shooting the film, and would it were that all directors could cultivate their pictures the same indulgent way he has, giving their work time to gestate, age like a fine vintage wine, allowing the fruit to ripen, the cream to rise. But as with the enervated Boyhood, it’s possible to let the pot simmer too long, until much juice and flavor has drained out. Apart from its intriguing conceptual premise, the movie is lacking in verve, excitement, the passion of moviemaking vigor. Unstinting praise for it then must be limited to Linklater’s daring attempt to find an innovative, fresh angle on the coming of age tale and his unflagging artistic commitment to seeing the project through. Unfortunately, beyond that there’s nothing truly radical about his execution, and what Boyhood has to say is nowhere near as fresh or intriguing as its artistic approach.
Considering how long and slowly paced it is, the movie might be inviting unkind comments by lecturing audiences on how quickly time passes. For a film about the importance of seizing the moment and living life to the fullest, Boyhood takes more than a sizable chunk out of viewers’ own lives, even if it did take even more out of its makers. Given the number of years cast and crew devoted to this venture it seems inexcusably impatient to crab about the length of time we’re asked to spend watching it. Indeed, the obvious care poured into Boyhood serves as extortion of sorts, making one feel like a worm for complaining about squirming through three hours of something that the director spent over a decade nurturing. But given the movie’s slow crawl and that nothing much really happens in a traditional dramatic sense, it will still seem like a lifetime for some. Boyhood ends mired in its subtext. Its length succeeds in wearing us down, hammering viewers into experiencing the concept of time as a palpable presence, but a shorter film would have more finely attuned us to the pleasure of passing the time with a good movie one feels to be over too soon.