There’s never been a movie quite like Boyhood, and it may be years before anyone works up the gumption to match its achievement. The process in which this sprawling coming-of-age story was created is uniquely ambitious: Richard Linklater, the Texas slacker-poet who made Dazed And Confused, shot the film over a dozen years, reconvening with his cast and crew for a few days annually. As a result, two of the stars—Ellar Coltrane as the boy of the title, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as his sister—literally grow up on-screen, changing over the course of the movie’s lengthy running time from grade-school-age performers to college-age ones. Seeing them mature in fast motion, physical hallmarks of childhood melting away every few minutes, is a truly remarkable experience.
There is, to be fair, some precedent for what Boyhood attempts. In a sense, the film is a spiritual cousin to Linklater’s Before movies, which similarly chart the physical (and emotional) changes its actors undergo across a vast expanse of time. Also worth noting are François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel movies, the ongoing Up series, and the Harry Potter franchise; furthermore, anyone who’s been watching Mad Men, The Walking Dead, and Game Of Thrones since their respective pilots has borne witness to some rather dramatic growth spurts. Boyhood, though, is grander and more adventurous than all of those works, because it crams an entire, real adolescence into one three-hour narrative. Sometimes, the age shift is so sudden that it’s comical: One cut, for example, finds Coltrane instantaneously transforming from a prepubescent child to a lanky, deep-voiced teenager.
Using pop music, technology, and changes in its cast’s appearance to denote each temporal leap forward, Boyhood tells the years-spanning saga of Mason (Coltrane), a sensitive and laid-back American kid who lives with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater) in suburban Texas. Mason’s father, played by Linklater muse Ethan Hawke, is an inconsistent presence, floating in for weekend visits but disappearing from his offspring’s lives for months at a time. The film charges forward through the years, as the family changes cities, hard-drinking stepfathers come and go, and both children inch slowly but inexorably into adult life.
Some of Boyhood is eventful, as when Mason’s mother is forced to abruptly yank her children out of a bad living situation. (Though somewhat clumsily executed, these scenes accurately convey the difficulty of living under the rule of an abusive drunk.) Mostly, however, the movie is composed of non-events, devoting entire passages to the ordinary stuff of modern life: a camping trip, a high-school party, the discovery of a dead bird in the backyard. What Linklater is after here is a mundanely meaningful vision of growing up, a childhood told in fragments and minutiae. The seminal moments in our lives, the ones that shape who we’ll become, aren’t always the expected ones. Notably, the film skips past Mason’s first kiss, his first beer, and the loss of his virginity. It’s less interested in typical milestones of youth than in the deceptively forgettable stuff that happens before and after them.
Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.
As drama, Boyhood can be a little patchy. Some shapelessness was always going to be a consequence of the filming method, possibly an intentional one; life, after all, fits no easy arcs or structures. And some of the movie’s passages are more compelling than others, with Linklater using the aimless nature of the narrative as an excuse to indulge in some of his signature Lefty sloganeering and stoner philosophizing. (The writing talents of Hawke and Julie Delpy, who co-authored the last two Before films, are sometimes missed here.) But Boyhood doesn’t lack for a thematic framework, nor for rich insight into what it’s like to be young and powerless, every move dictated by adults who don’t necessarily know best. Stifling authority figures orbit Mason throughout; his journey, it becomes clear, is not just a rite of passage—it’s a dawning realization that if he’s not careful, adult life will become just a different set of rules and restrictions.
Despite its title, Boyhood is also about what it means to be a parent, to square one’s own life against that of a son or daughter. There’s great poignancy in seeing Hawke and Arquette age too, in parallel to their young co-stars. The latter delivers a moving late-film monologue, an explosion of feeling from a character who’s been relegated to a supporting role, in the way most children eventually relegate their own folks to the sidelines. Mason can hardly wait to escape into the long sprawl of post-teenage existence. What he doesn’t understand, but his mother does, is that time will eventually fly faster than he’ll desire.
In condensing a quarter of a life into three languid hours, Linklater comes close to capturing how most people remember their childhoods: as a series of random occurrences, some big and some small, all given meaning by their proximity to each other. There’s a cumulative power here that transcends any rough patches. Boyhood isn’t perfect, but it’s an astonishing, one-of-a-kind accomplishment—and further proof that Linklater is one of the most daring, ambitious filmmakers working today.