I’ll admit up front that when I heard about how Richard Linklater’s new film, Boyhood, had been filmed over a period of twelve years to follow the life of a fairly typical American boy, Mason (played by the remarkable Ellar Coltrane) from first grade through college orientation, with the same actor playing the boy over through the entire time, I was impressed by the audacity of the concept and the difficulty of completing such a task, but my expectations for the film itself were not high: filmed in such a way, it was likely to be virtually plotless and probably tediously overlong. After seeing the film, I can report that my expectations were largely correct. But despite those defects, the film is a triumph anyway.
Anyone who has been paying attention knows that Linklater’s film has been virtually universally lauded by film critics, and loved as well (though not quite so unanimously) by average theatergoers. While I can’t quite agree with assessments that call this the greatest coming of age story ever told, or the closest thing to real life ever put on film—that kind of hyperbole will fade once we get a little distance from the shiny moment of the film’s bursting upon the scene—I will agree that it is a triumph of realism and an astounding tour de force. It’s not quite that nothing like it has ever been done before: Linklater’s own previous trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight), which follows a couple through their initial love affair through marriage and the disintegration of marriage, using the same actors and a real-life space of some nine years between each film, are a step in the direction of Boyhood. Other film projects, like Steve James’ Hoop Dreams (a documentary looking at five years in the lives of two African-American high school basketball players) and the British “Up” Series (in which director Michael Apted followed the lives of fourteen British children from 1964 until 2013, catching up with them every seven years) must certainly have influenced Linklater’s vision in this film.
Boyhood, though, is an even bolder concept than these previous films, since, as a fictional story, it must hang together in ways that a documentary need not. There must be a script, and ultimately one that shows the arc of a story In the end that story is extremely loose, but there is the arc of Mason’s coming of age, his up-and-down relationships with his sometimes absent father, his sometimes ineffectual mother, and a duet of unsavory stepfathers; as well as the ups and downs of his own love life, which seems to be looking up somewhat in the end. It’s something of a miracle of scripting—and even more so of editing—that there is any coherence at all to the plot.
And what an act of faith it must have been for the actors to sign on for a twelve-year project. Some characters come in and out of the story, but the four lead actors—Coltain, Ethan Hawke (as Mason’s father, Mason Sr.), Patricia Arquette (as Mason’s mother Olivia) and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei (as Mason’s older sister Samantha)—made a commitment in 2002 to devote time to this project on an annual basis until 2013, an unheard of dedication in so ephemeral a business as filmmaking. And watching these actors is one of the great delights of this film Linklater was extremely lucky in the children he chose in 2002: the 7-year-old Coltrane seems to have been a natural talent, and in the unaffected genuineness of his performance through the years he is able to avoid the cloyingly obnoxious artificiality that develops in many child actors. As for Linklater’s daughter, the director may be accused of a kind of nepotism in putting her in the film, but in fact it was quite shrewd to use a child actress over whom he knew he would have some sway for the twelve years of the project. In fact the younger Linklater is as natural and unaffected, and convincing, as Coltrane is. Hawke, of course, is used to working with Linklater, having starred in the Before… series, and while at times he seems to be reprising his character from those films, he matures in a way that is in perfect harmony with this character’s maturing in the film over the twelve-year period, and is convincing and memorable in the role.
But for my money the most fascinating performance was turned in by Arquette. In full disclosure, I must admit that I have never been impressed by Patricia Arquette as an actress and in the first scenes of the film I felt that we were simply getting a reprise of her incredibly wooden performance in her long-running television series Medium. But as the film progressed, her performance became more nuanced, she showed more genuine emotion and more subtle understanding of her character. It may be, of course, that that development was planned from the beginning, either by Linklater or Arquette; on the other hand, it may be that the twelve years of filming actually records a growth in Arquette’s own range as an actress.
But where Boyhood shines particularly is in its realism. Linklater tends to be something of a classicist: his Before films, for example seem very deliberately to follow the classical Aristotelian unities of time, place and action. That is, the time covered in the films is close to the actually running time of the film, or at least is concluded within twenty-four hours. There is a single plot—the conflict between the two main characters—and everything takes place in a single location. For classical writers, adherence to these unities enhanced the verisimilitude, i.e., the appearance of truth, of the drama. In Boyhood, the spirit of the unities seems behind the decision to keep the same actors in their roles over a twelve-year storyline. The movie displays a verisimilitude in that the actors age naturally in front of us: They do not need makeup or special effects, and there is no need to replace the children with different actors and ask the audience to suspend their disbelief and pretend that, as in Star Wars, for instance, Hayden Christensen is a more grown-up Jake Lloyd—or for that matter that James Earl Jones is a more seasoned Hayden Christensen.
Linklater is also influenced by the concept of the “slice of life” realism that developed among French naturalist playwrights more than a century ago, but that resurfaced to some extent in some television plays of the 1950s. Usually the term suggests a somewhat arbitrary depiction of events in a central character’s life, lacking traditionally recognizable conflict, plot and resolution. Thus the perceived weaknesses of the film are the natural byproduct of its style and genre. Even some of the connections that occur in the movie seem completely arbitrary: At one point, for instance, a gardener whom Olivia has told to go to college reappears years later as assistant manager of a restaurant and thanks her for giving him the advice. At the same time, details that we long to have resolved are left hanging at the end of the movie: Olivia takes her children away from an abusive stepfather, but has to leave the man’s own two children from a previous marriage in the home. We never discover the fate of those children. But this kind of arbitrariness, it must be admitted, is precisely the way life is. So lifelike is this film that in one scene, when one of the characters asked for a stick of gum, my wife reached for her purse.
This is a film that will astound you, more for the boldness of its concept and the deftness of its execution than for any particularly moving or gripping scenes. It is a film more for the head than the heart, and will certainly go down as one of the great achievements in filmmaking, though I can’t quite concur that it will be remembered as one of the greatest films of all time. But it’s a film you really ought to see, because it’s what everybody will be talking about all year long.