Silver Screen: Boyhood ****1/2
Time is the unbilled costar of Richard Linklater’s quiet but audacious Boyhood. The restlessly inventive filmmaker shot the movie during the course of twelve years to trace the real-time effect of the years on his central character, a child living with his single mother in east Texas who transitions through turbulent teenagerdom and eventually sets out on his own. It’s a bold yet simple premise, one that merges concept art with plainspoken narrative.
Linklater’s significant appeal is the balance between his intellectual curiosity and grounded, workmanlike approach. His other grand cinematic experiment with time, the decades-spanning trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, is filled with protracted, hyper-articulate conversations that could veer into pretentiousness were the films not tempered by good humor and the director’s own genuine concern. There’s some of that in Boyhood, too— our man-in-training will grow up to be as vocal about his own existential curiosities as the director himself— but Linklater downplays the overt philosophizing and even turns the drama down to a slow simmer so that the passage of time itself becomes almost a visible process.
We meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) at age six, living in a cramped house with his already-exhausted mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). In these first scenes, Linklater wonderfully captures discontinuity of childhood, when life seems to be a barely connected series of events outside your control, some interminable and others flashing by in seconds. At eight, Mason and his life are mostly unremarkable. He rides bikes with his neighborhood pal, battles his bratty, domineering sister, and resentfully complies with his mother’s commands.
When the action first moves forward a year, it’s barely noticeable. A slight difference in his haircut aside, Mason still looks about the same, although as the years progress the changes become more pronounced and drastic. Puberty, as always, will be as sudden and alarming as a train wreck.
Along the way a loose narrative develops which, as in life itself, is clear only in retrospect. Mason’s mother moves the family a few hours away, nearer to Austin, so she can go back to school. His absentee father (Ethan Hawke), a youthfully delusional, self-centered musician, returns with vague promises of becoming more involved with his children.
Boyhood is primarily concerned with Mason’s blossoming, but the effects of age on his parents are just as remarkable. Arquette thickens a little and settles into middle age, but her character bears the weight of the accumulated years like a boulder. Her arc is quietly devastating as she shoulders the responsibilities of both her children as well as those of a series of unworthy men. A pair of crow’s feet and a dusting of whiteness in his goatee aside, Hawke remains resiliently youthful, but he does a wonderful job of gradually, almost imperceptibly dialing back his character’s restless energy and childlike fervor. By the end of the film he wears maturity like an uncomfortable set of clothes. As the child gains the entire world, both of his parents lose something essential of themselves. In the background of Mason’s own drama is a lovely, almost more compelling movie, Adulthood.
There’s only one incidence of high drama in Boyhood. It’s a tragically common occurrence made even more harrowing by its grim familiarity. Mostly, though, Linklater avoids trying to construct Mason’s life as a series of episodes and signposts pointing toward anything like destiny. His vérité approach favors more mundane moments, and he steers away from rites of passage and a checklist of firsts: first kiss, first love, first job, and the blessed conclusion of virginity. By and large it’s a successful strategy, but at times the writer/director does err in making Mason’s childhood a little too uneventful, so much so that the character can be indistinct. During his later years, when Mason develops a defining artistic passion, it seems to spring almost from nowhere. It would have been nice, without resorting to a blunt demonstration cause-and-effect, to witness this development. It doesn’t help that Coltrane, though a compelling presence, is not a commanding one, and sometimes threatens to get lost in his own movie. (Turns out that it’s Linklater’s daughter Lorelei who has the real screen presence.)
Minor imperfections aside, Boyhood is a towering achievement that’s also supremely enjoyable. This is no arthouse chore. The two-hours-and-forty-five-minutes of screen time rush past, propelled forward by a timely soundtrack and the momentum of the years. It’s moving and unmanipulative and thoughtful. For almost any other filmmaker it would be a crowning achievement; for Linklater it’s yet another beguiling innovation.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.