“Time’s going by,” says one character in the early scenes of Boyhood, the extraordinary latest film from Texan auteur Richard Linklater. It’s a throwaway line, and an obvious one at that, but those three words serve as a simple guideline for the movie as a whole: time’s always going by.
It was crucial to even the way the film was shot. Boyhood had a 39 day shoot over 12 years to accommodate Linklater’s now-famous choice to forgo double-casting or expensive prosthetics, and use the natural aging of his actors to tell the story of a young boy growing up in Texas from the ages of 6 to 18. With only wonderfully-implemented cultural milestones and the rapidly changing contours of the young lead’s face as markers, time has rarely, if ever, been foregrounded in cinema to this degree. Perhaps Boyhood’s closest allies in that regard are Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series–6 films over 20 years, starting with 1959’s The 400 Blows and ending with 1979’s Love on the Run–and the Harry Potter franchise. Boyhood, however, covers 12 years in one 166-minute film, and though its story may not seem as expansive as the Doinel films or as intricate as the epic hero’s journey of Harry Potter, Linklater works, as he usually does, in deceptive simplicity, and, by that token, Boyhood proves to be a work of near-endless complexity.
The boy in question is named Mason, played by Ellar Coltrane, who, in a model of long term casting luck, developed over the years from a cherubic 6-year-old to a soulful, rail-thin, quietly compelling 18-year-old. Mason, at story’s beginning, is a smart, curious kid, though perhaps not in the way his teachers would like. His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette, in a stunning portrayal of long-term weariness) is struggling to raise Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) on her own, while dealing with her split-up from her oft-absent ex-husband Mason Sr. (a magnetic Ethan Hawke), the “fun” parent who rolls through on weekends in a seatbelt-less 1968 Pontiac GTO for bowling alley excursions.
The years pass. Olivia moves her family to Houston to go back to school, and enters into relationships with several other men, which Mason later dubs the “parade of drunken assholes.” Mason Sr. continues to try to be a presence in his children’s life, but ends up going through a growing-up process of his own. Meanwhile, Mason and Samantha quietly accumulate life experience—they dress up for the midnight release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, they change schools multiple times, they watch Roger Clemens pitch for the Astros with their dad, they experience first love and the inevitable broken hearts.
Eventually, the film focuses squarely on Mason, brilliantly timed to coincide with Coltrane coming into his own as an actor. This is the section of the film where we truly start to see linearity in Linklater’s selective and specific choice of moments. When we meet Mason, he is 6, laying on grass, staring up at the sky, getting lost in the clouds. Years later, the 10-year-old, struggling to fall asleep, asks his dad if there’s “real magic in the world,” and seems disappointed when the answer he gets is “no.” Even later, driving in his truck with his high school sweetheart in the passenger’s seat, 17-year-old Mason justifies his decision to deactivate his Facebook account by saying he wishes to live life “not through a screen,” a juvenile twist on the kind of conversations Jesse and Celine have in Linklater’s equally brilliant and groundbreaking Before trilogy. But most crucially, it is because of those earlier scenes in Boyhood that we understand Mason as he grows into a budding artist and formidable thinker.
The thrill of watching Boyhood is different than the thrill of watching any other movie—Linklater seems categorically against imposing any artificial drama on his fictional family, instead opting to tell Mason’s story from a perspective that is linear, matter-of-fact, and invisible. Like in life, we only move forwards. Like in memory, we rarely know at what age we are. Like in perception, years go by as quick as a cut. Inevitably Mason grows, navigating his families, both biological and surrogate, and picking up lessons about what it is to be alive along the way. In this familiar immensity, it is easy and exciting for the audience to see themselves in any of the characters’ journeys, and to grasp nuggets of profundity on what it means to be a son, a daughter, a father, a mother, a friend, a teacher, a human. Even at best, these nuggets can’t offer any answers, but instead point to a solemn and tender, yet open-ended, conclusion: that the little moments in life might be all we have and all we need.
There are certainly “big” moments in Boyhood – laughs and fights, a birthday and a graduation across the years–but the character building is almost entirely done in the juxtaposition of hundreds of experiences that might be labelled as “mundane.” But isn’t that life? Most films indirectly feed an all-too-common mindset: that life is most easily understood demarcated into its “biggest” moments. After all, that’s what any screenwriter is taught in Screenwriting 101—get to the exciting stuff and forget the rest—and thus it is what we get on the big screen week after week.
Boyhood is an experiment in the opposite. It tells the story of Mason through events that tend not to be life-altering: a dinner with his family, a camping trip with his Dad, a road trip with his girlfriend. Boyhood presents a way of looking at life that is holistic, that doesn’t devalue any one experience in the formation of identity. Mason’s life isn’t extraordinary, nor does the film have any pretensions that his future will be either. But watching Mason grow in impressionistic snapshots over twelve years, against all odds and cinematic conventions, doesn’t feel like you’ve missed a moment. Perhaps, if Boyhood is right, then there are no “big” moments in life. It’s all just one story.
This idea isn’t foreign to Linklater. It harkens back to the opening scene of Before Sunset, where Jesse (Ethan Hawke again) answers if his book is autobiographical by paraphrasing Thomas Wolfe’s note at the beginning of Look Homeward, Angel: “We are the sum of all of the moments of our lives.” “When I look at my life,” Jesse continues, “I have to admit I’ve never been around a bunch of guns or violence, a helicopter crash, political intrigue. But my life, from my point of view, has been full of drama.” It’s no surprise that Linklater, who was thick in the middle of filming Boyhood at the time, would use this sentiment to connect the two films. It is an idea that cuts to the core of what Boyhood is all about.
But while Boyhood celebrates the little moments in life, it is also not afraid to deal with the other side: the feeling of loss, of emptiness that can arise in a life without guns or violence, helicopter crashes, or political intrigue, and the feeling that moments in life are so short that it’s easy to feel like you’re constantly leaving something behind. In the opening scenes, 6-year-old Mason watches his best friend bike behind his car as his family moves to Houston; he never got to say goodbye. Years later, after Olivia successfully tears her family away from her second “drunken asshole” husband, Mason and Samantha catch a glimpse of his children—their step-siblings—as the door closes, knowing full well they will stay in his custody. Later, Mason and his ex-girlfriend, who had been in love not five minutes earlier, sit apart from each other, the emptiness between them dominating the shot. Luckily for Linklater, none of the main actors died over the course of production, but even so, a tremendous feeling of loss hangs over the whole movie—loss of innocence, loss of possessions, loss of love. In almost every case, the characters are silent in these moments of loss, perhaps asking themselves a question that Mason finally vocalizes towards the end of the movie: “What’s the point? … Of anything? All of this?” In Boyhood, the great irony of life seems to be that “time’s going by” and you may never find out.
Perhaps this can be summarized in one of the film’s final scenes, where Olivia, watching her son pack up and head out the door for college, breaks down, and quietly admits of her life, through fits of tears, “I just thought there would be more.” While this line will no doubt reflect the sentiments of the film’s critics, for many it will be one of those nuggets of profundity, the ultimate expression of loss: because at one point or another, didn’t we all feel the same? Mason Sr., on the other hand, delivers a different nugget: “What’s the point of everything?” he responds to his son’s question, “Shit, I don’t know. We’re all just winging it… But the good thing is that you’re feelingsomething.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Boyhood, more than anything else, is that after watching a whole lifetime flash before our eyes, it is clear neither parent is wrong. Life is both not enough and all we have, and it goes by in the blink of an eye. Boyhood opens its arms in acceptance to this idea, to bottle up the flow of time and find fleeting beauty in its cohesive whole. This is how we grow up. Year by year, moment by moment.