Boyhood has no interest in declaring its ambitions. Shot in short spurts over twelve years as its lead actor Ellar Coltrane aged from seven to eighteen, it is the grandest undertaking that director Richard Linklater has yet attempted, but it never feels any less relaxed and casual than his other films. Coltrane’s Mason doesn’t come of age so much as he ambles into it, the transition from boyhood to adulthood portrayed as a slow journey made up of moments large and small rather than one defined by a three-act structure. No grand epiphanies, just small realisations.
It’s a refreshing, at times powerful approach to the bildungsroman – but its power comes not from dramatic heft but from the nourishing feeling of watching someone’s life genuinely unfold. There is of course precedent for watching someone age on film in tandem with their character, from the Harry Potter films to Linklater’s own Before trilogy, but watching Coltrane and his on-screen sister Sam (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) grow up in the space of one film is certainly striking, and inspires an audience connection that would have had been entirely missed by using different actors at different ages. The film is disorienting in its period feel during its early scenes – the soundtrack matches up with each passing year and inspires an innate nostalgia for the recent past, but of course at the time of filming the past was present. The effect embraces and alienates at the same time, creating a bridge between then and now whilst calling into question what exactly it is that is making us misty-eyed for this window into the past.
Dealing with one story spread over such a huge timeframe must have been a huge challenge, so it’s a relief that its held together by its four main characters. Patricia Arquette as Mason’s single mother bears the brunt of the dramatic work as her character falls in and out of love with a series of alcoholic and abusive boyfriends whilst taking care of two children through adolescence, and she does a fantastic job of playing a woman who goes through several phases of her life in one movie. Ethan Hawke as their father delicately balances his character’s recklessness with his compassion, making the eventual sorting-out of his life progress naturally.
Both of these characters are only ever seen in relation to the two children, though, and if they hadn’t picked talents from the get-go the whole project could have been disaster. And while Coltrane is a shining, natural talent, it should be noted that so is Lorelei Linklater. Throughout, her role is that of a counterpoint, the assertive yang to Mason’s laid-back yin, but she turns that into a powerful character, pushing back against the injustices that wash over and past Mason. At one point, she even rails against the film’s structure, indignant and angry that she and her brother may never see their step-siblings again after the family flees from their absuive stepfether. We never do – they’re lost to the steady forward thrust of time.
What ties this all together, and what makes the film more than a novel experiment, is Richard Linklater’s approach to the story he is telling, particularly when it comes to editing. Faced with such a sporadic filming schedule, a lesser director would have told their story as a series of episodes, little short stories that added up to a larger whole. Instead, Boyhood lazily winds through the years, abruptly shifting in time without fading in and out, placing equal import on moments large and small. It does has its dramatic moments, yes, but these are given equal weighting to moments like the one in which Mason’s dad sells the musclecar that he had forgotten he had promised him at sixteen, or where Mason comes home stoned and doesn’t hide the fact from his mother. Linklater’s approach sacrifices narrative for incident, drama for detail, and as such it feels like the fruition of a career that has been perpetually fascinated with the minutiae of life.
Applying his trademark style to such a grand palette does have its flaws, and sometimes one can’t help but wish the film would allow us access to Mason’s bigger moments – it cruises straight past the loss of his virginity, his sister leaving for college, the break-up of his mother’s third relationship, etc. – simply because it’s hard to hold onto a film that deliberately shies away from structure. But in the film’s final scene, as Mason leaves home, begins college, makes new friends, and chats casually about life and the universe, one can’t help but be moved the universalness of his story. Sure, Mason is a white, lower-middle-class man and there are plenty of childhoods out there far different to his, but we all must grow up, and we all must search for a place in the world, even if we don’t realise we’re doing it. Mason will grow older still, these new friends may come and go, they may stay, and we will all carry on, forever in the present, and forever looking back.