The cast (including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) ages in real time in this stirring look at a family's perseverance through the day-to-day business of getting older and growing up
“On the day that I was born, I started growing old,” begins a song in Richard Linklater‘s extraordinary “Boyhood,” and that's as concise a summary as you need for this moving, one-of-a-kind film about the passage of time and the changes it brings to us all.
“They endured” is the famous post-script to William Faulkner‘s “The Sound and the Fury,” and that's precisely what Linklater's characters do after a dozen or so tumultuous years. What makes the storytelling of “Boyhood” unique is that Linklater made the movie in 40 days stretched out over 12 years, so that we see the characters age before us.
It might sound gimmicky, like Alfred Hitchcock‘s extended takes in “Rope,” but there's more at play here that just watching hit songs and technology change bit by bit with each passing year. (Linklater, a studied connoisseur of pop culture, interweaves those milestones with the facility of Armistead Maupin in the “Tales of the City” novels.)
When we meet young Mason (Ellar Coltrane), he's a bright-eyed six year old who collects arrowheads and snake vertebrae, squabbles with his bratty older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) and loves his devoted mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and his oft-absent dad Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke).
As the years pass, Mason will discover a talent for photography, find good mentors (his father, a schoolteacher, his boss at a fish joint) and bad ones (Olivia picks two seemingly upright husbands who turn out to be alcoholics), learn about the opposite sex (from the lingerie section of the Sears catalog, via the internet, and by actually talking to them) and, before our eyes, evolve from boyhood to manhood.
He's not the only one: Samantha starts the movie singing a Britney Spears song and ends it as an eye-rolling undergrad, Olivia blossoms from student and single mom to professor, and even Mason, Sr. must trade in his beloved, bad-ass GTO for a far more functional mini-van. By the time young Mason is off to college, and Olivia finds herself feeling sentimental about his impending departure, we feel those same pangs about “Boyhood” coming to an end, and about watching this child we've seen mature going out on his own into the world.
We've seen people age onscreen before, but usually in documentaries like Michael Apted‘s “Up” series or the long-ranging “Hoop Dreams.” For Linklater to space out the production of a narrative movie over such a long period of time gives the material genuine heft; most films would never dare feature performers clearly going through their awkward years of adolescence — braces, wispy mustaches, growth spurts, and all — but Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater make us privy to their every phase up to their emergence as fully-formed young adults.
A story with this kind of scope needs room to breathe, but even at 160 minutes, “Boyhood” never drags. You can feel director Linklater and his frequent editor Sandra Adair rejecting the beats we've come to expect from commercial filmmaking in favor of a more organic flow, one that reflects the fits and starts of life itself.
(There are recurring conversations throughout the film regarding Pavlov, Skinner and the science of human conditioning, and the filmmakers are too smart to ring the dinner bell exactly when we think they will.)
As he has throughout his career, from “Slacker” and “Dazed and Confused” to the lovely “Bernie” to the “Before” trilogy, Linklater proves himself as a filmmaker unconcerned with flash and dazzle but thoroughly compassionate and empathetic to a wide range of characters. There's a scene well into the film where Mason, Sr.'s new in-laws, who live in rural Texas, give a teenaged Mason, Jr. the gift of a Bible and a shotgun, and there's nothing snarky or ironic about the moment.
The director gives those older characters their sincerity and their kindness, and the teenager the understanding and the politeness to accept those gifts, even if neither is the sort of thing that fits with the life he's creating for himself. It's a small moment, but a telling one — “Boyhood” ultimately understands maturity and adulthood in a way that most man-child comedies never will.
Rewatching “Boyhood” six months after reviewing it at Sundance, I found the experience even richer and deeper. If Linklater and his collaborators have the time and patience to spend the next dozen years making a sequel called “Manhood,” so much the better. Characters this fascinating deserve to endure.
Portions of this review originally appeared as part of TheWrap's Sundance Film Festival coverage.