Wise, sprawling, relatable, painful, and subversive, Boyhood is a visionary magnus opus, triggering your own recall button, inviting you in, daring you to jump into the screen. Anti-Hollywood and anti-climactic, it’s a coming-of-age movie where the characters actually come of age. Unhurried and enthralling, you’ve never seen anything like this.

In 2002, sometime between Waking Life and School of Rock, writer-director Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) conceived the project of a lifetime. He would tell the story of a 6-year-old and follow him for the next 12 years, in real time, until the beginning of his freshman year in college. To this end, Linklater would cast Ellar Coltrane, an unknown Texas boy, as Mason; his own 8-year-old daughter Lorelei as Samantha; and established actress Patricia Arquette (Medium) and long-time creative partner Ethan Hawke (Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Before Midnight) as Olivia and Mason Sr. He would shoot three days a year for more than a decade, banking on IFC’s annual cheque for $200,000 and everyone’s commitment to the ludicrous endeavour.

The resulting film encircles all that is between childhood and high school graduation: afternoon daydreaming, sibling rivalry, bicycle rides, bedtime stories, video games, lingerie ads, nature conservatories, camping trips, inevitable moves, paternal outbursts, beer pong, first kisses.

In something this recklessly ambitious, there are so many things that could have gone wrong. Linklater has described it as “collaborating with the unknown future.” Certainly, some luck is required, and it helps that Coltrane became a natural performer, that Lorelei became a heartstopper, and that neither decided to walk from the project, say, around the time that Apple computers had huge colourful monitors or “1901” was playing daily on every car radio.

Furthermore, Linklater’s not the first to toy with time: his own Before trilogy, one of the grandest love stories in history, followed Hawke and Julie Delpy every nine years at different stages of their relationship (in fact, there’s a leisurely back-and-forth between Mason and a girl that mimics the beautiful rhythms of Jesse and Celine). Michael Apted’s Up series, one of the most fascinating documentary experiments in history, followed a group of British children every seven years until they reached their mid-50s. Finally, François Truffaut followed Jean-Pierre Léaud’s character from The 400 Blows in several subsequent films in the 1960s and 70s.

But Boyhood is something magically different. Tarkovsky famously said that the film director “sculpts in time,” and Linklater has sculpted a monumental study of a boy, a “flowing time sculpture.” Or maybe he and time collaborated in the sculpting, or time actually sculpted Linklater and Coltrane. Either way, it’s the kind of movie that you want to swim in, chronicling the colossal significance of the everyday, condensing the entirety of early life into three blissful hours.

In its head-scrambling logistics, unforced comedy, and tingling observations, Boyhood is an empathetic saga that is stunning in its cumulative emotional impact. It captures the bittersweet process of growing up, as seen through the prism of a child’s lens, as well as the rigours and vicissitudes of adulthood. In Linklater’s words, “You have to work hard to earn your way out of a simple definition of yourself.” Indeed, the weight it attains in its last hour is no accident; it’s the weight of existence itself. Looking back on his accomplishments to date, it becomes clear that Linklater deserves to be called one of the grand pioneers, explorers, and expanders of contemporary cinema.

Beyond Family of the Year’s delectable “Hero,” heard on the trailer, the soundtrack is a marvel – featuring The Hives, Blink 182, Sheryl Crow, Cat Power, The Flaming Lips, Vampire Weekend, Phoenix, Lady Gaga, Cobra Starship, Foo Fighters, Kings of Leon, Bob Dylan, The Black Keys – chronologically apt, framed by Coldplay’s “Yellow” (“Look at the stars / Look how they shine for you / And everything you do”) and lyrically answered by Arcade Fire’s “Deep Blue” (“Here / In my own place and time / And here in my own skin / I can finally begin”).

Boyhood functions as a living time capsule without title cards, charting American society from 9/11, Harry Potter, and the Game Boy Advance to Facebook, Obama, and the Nintendo Wii. In a vacuum, one would assume that watching Lorelei dance to Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again” or hearing a passing reference to “Four More Years” would be pandering cliché. Yet the knowledge of Boyhood’s production schedule gives these signifiers a strange, uncanny power. When they were shot, they were not kitsch markers, but documentary fingerprints of time’s chariot, its leaky faucet dripping, water cascading down the side of the proverbial sink. It’s the cinema of nostalgia, but with a heightened sense of ephemerality.

Boyhood makes one feel intensely. Who hasn’t been at a party where someone has picked up a guitar and started to sing “Wish You Were Here”? Who doesn’t identify with the agonizing, post-breakup loss of a beloved high school sweetheart? Parental arguments, bad haircuts, misunderstood birthday presents, school violence, divorce, petty disappointments – these are immediately familiar to anyone with a pulse. As Terrence Malick did in The Tree of Life, Linklater discovers the profound in the quotidian. That Mason develops an interest in photography is a tidy correlative of Linklater’s ability to take the inconsequential and, by the mere act of selection, elevate it into meaning.

Boyhood is in touch with an urgent truth: life is terrifyingly short. Nothing else comes close to representing with resonance and tenderness cinema’s unique ability to capture the ineffable sadness of time passing. In progress, our childhood seems like an aeon; to our parents, it flashes past in a dreamlike instant; in hindsight, it changes from a sturdy narrative to a swirling constellation of memories that drift in and out of reach. Boyhood allows one to experience life at an accelerated pace, like watching a photo as it develops in the darkroom. Its unstoppability is devastating.

Funny, intimate, soulful, minimal, and quietly insightful, Boyhood is a multiplicity of paradoxes: a critical favourite for a massive popular audience, a rousing crowdpleaser with intelligence and heart, a near-masterpiece from a filmmaker that has somehow managed to strike gold twice in the last two years. My feelings for Boyhood approach something close to adoration. It’s a stunt, a home video, a benediction, an epic, and an astonishing cinematic treasure. I had a smile on my face five minutes into Boyhood, and the last few lines of dialogue basically defy you not to leave with one.

There’s an excruciatingly embarrassing scene in a diner between Mason Sr. and Samantha – a conversation on the subject of contraception – that’s so flawlessly cringe-worthy, it’s a classic of its kind. The same can be said for Boyhood itself. Yes, Rick, your mad gamble paid off in spades.


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3 thoughts on “Boyhood

  1. J says:

    Great review. OK, question. Just watched it for the second time. At the graduation party, Mason’s brother says, “You know you’re in enemy territory.” Was this in reference to politics or to the party being at his ex-wife’s house? Then “Four more years” seems to be a taunt. Did Mason become more religious and anti-Obama since 2008? Or was the taunt that Mason would have to keep his views quiet at such an event?

    • My interpretation was the latter, but it could very well have a double meaning.

      • J says:

        Watching it again, I realize that it might be a reference to the financial responsibility of fatherhood–four more years of tuition. That’s one of the great aspects of this film–it seems to encourage various possible interpretations.

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