In writer/director Richard Linklater’s groundbreaking epic “Boyhood,” life isn’t reduced to a neat three-act story with a linear character arc, condensed timeline and a tidy lesson at the end. Instead, the film captures the fluidity of existence as a series of memories that swim into each other, crystalized in sequential vignettes. And it’s shot in sprawling, languorous real time over 11 actual years, following a single actor from age 7 to 18.
It’s an ambitious undertaking, but no filmmaker is better suited to the task than Linklater, a master of plumbing the human condition through subtle comedy and dynamic character building stealthily concealed as offhanded, mumbled exchanges. That Linklater succeeds with this project isn’t surprising; he’s been crafting deeply personal pieces for 23 years. But with “Boyhood,” he seemingly reinvents the art form, and in doing so solidifies himself among the ranks of today’s great modern directors.
“Boyhood” is Linklater’s “E.T.,” his “Forrest Gump,” his “There Will Be Blood.” Everything he’s been building to in his filmmaking career — from his underground hits “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” through his innovative “Before Trilogy” (“Before Sunrise,” “Before Sunset” and last year’s “Before Midnight”), which depicts an 18-year friendship between a man and a woman over the course of three extended conversations — everything has come to this. A quiet, contemplative film about a quiet, contemplative kid growing up in South Texas.
The film was shot between May 2002 and October 2013, and tracks the adolescence of Mason Evans Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). After his parents’ divorce, Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette) moves him and his sister Samanta (Lorelei Linklater, the director´s daughter) across the state. His father (Ethan Hawke) visits every other weekend while Mason suffers through a pair of loutish stepfathers.
Remember the rush of that first love note passed to you in class? The anxiety of the first time another teenager tossed a beer in your lap? The pain of a parent’s forgotten promise? Those moments are all here, stripped of melodrama or cliché. You barely have time to process these new feelings before another year slips away.
The film has no title cards identifying time or location, allowing Mason’s growth to feel organic; oftentimes only his wildly varying hairstyles betray the passage of time.
Hawke, Arquette and Coltrane each contributed heavily to the script based on their real lives, with the biggest influence coming from Texas native Linklater. The film also serves as a love letter of sorts to the Lone Star State. The moments of Mason’s life feel as universal as humanity — or at least a lower middle class American. (One wonders, incidentally, how much more powerful other coming-of-age movies like “Boyz N the Hood” or “City of God” would have been had they been given similar scope.)
The most remarkable aspect of “Boyhood” is that with a run time of nearly three hours, you still feel yourself wanting more. As Mason prepares to head off to college, you, like Arquette’s character, can feel the emotion welling inside. Wait, stop — this can’t be all there is. Did all that happen so fast? Is life just a series of arbitrary moments? “Boyhood” is wise enough to avoid any easy outs. But the film’s magic lies in its insistence that the transcendent lies in the mundane.
Don’t be surprised if you find yourself reveling a little more attention in those random moments that take your day in unusual directions. Someday, they may not seem so random.