Boyhood, the latest film from writer-director Richard Linklater, has been getting quite a lot of attention lately, which—despite the fact that Linklater has had quite a few successes over the years—is unusual for this quirky, independent filmmaker. The primary reason for all the buzz is the completely unique method used to make the film. In a story about a boy growing up from childhood to becoming a young adult, the usual method would be to have different actors play the main character at different times in his life, and try to fill in period detail for the different historical and cultural time frames of the story. What Linklater did, however, starting in 2002, after selecting a child actor, Ellar Coltrane, from the auditions, was to take a few weeks each year to film part of the story, for twelve years, keeping the same actors in their roles for all those years, so that the audience actually witnesses the boy, his family, and others, growing older on film. The finished movie, in 2014, depicts the passage of time quite literally, unlike any other fiction film ever made, that I know of.
As remarkable as this idea is, with its faith that the process would work out and everyone would be able to stick with it, it could have been a failure without excellent writing, acting and directing. It turns out to be a marvelous success. The premise made me expect something flamboyant, a movie of entertaining stylistic flourishes, but surprisingly, the picture has a much more rigorous, almost avant-garde, point of view.
Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, six years old at the film’s beginning, living in Texas with his single mom, played by Patricia Arquette, and slightly older sister Samantha, played by the director’s actual daughter, Lorelei Linklater. Their divorced dad, a scruffy wannabe musician played by Ethan Hawke, is absent for long periods, but eventually gets into a routine of picking the kids up every other weekend. Their mom, in every other regard very smart, makes some really bad decisions when it comes to men, and the kids have mixed experiences with two different stepfathers over the years (one of them turns out to be a scary abusive alcoholic). But with about fifteen minutes of footage for each year, the film’s focus is on the ordinary, uneventful nature of most experience. Even though there are some dramatic moments, Linklater punctures the idea of the story with the beginning, middle and end: he captures the random and arbitrary quality of life, the floating sensation of the moment—so that whatever feelings arise in the viewer come almost as a surprise. The dialogue is sometimes very funny in a completely natural way, yet most of the time quite banal. Especially good are the interactions between adults and children—the picture brought back to me, painfully at times, the condescending attitudes and lecturing which kids and adolescents often endure from their elders. Awkwardness is also a theme— growing up is awkward, and Boyhood faces that reality full-on.
The technique of having the performers grow older on film, of a film that covers the actual time period of the story, produces—paradoxically—a very elusive quality, a sense of something greater around the edges of life. Boyhood has such a clarity and balance, such a tension between intimacy and distance, that it challenges the way we usually watch films or even listen to stories. And it is unique in more than its method—it actually opens up a new way of observing ourselves.