When the question “who are America’s best living filmmakers” is debated, Richard Linklater’s name rarely comes up, even though he has created a lauded cinematic resume that ranges from romantic drama (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight) to philosophical meditation (Waking Life), comedy (Dazed and Confused, School of Rock), political agitprop (Fast Food Nation) and even science fiction (A Scanner Darkly). Linklater’s latest, Boyhood, will undoubtedly raise his profile. The film synthesizes nearly all of his diverse concerns into one stunning masterpiece.
Time has always been a central element of Linklater’s work, but never before has it been programmed into a film’s DNA like this. Epic but intimate, the film, which traces the life of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from ages 6 to 18, was filmed for a few weeks each year over the course of 12 years. When viewers first see Mason, the dreamy little boy is struggling with the dislocations resulting from his parents’ divorce. By the end, he is 18 and standing on the brink of adulthood. In between are celebrations, fights, step-parents (both good and bad), sudden changes, philosophical discussions, first love, heartbreak, experimentation, betrayals and devotion that will shape Mason into a man. Many of the film’s themes are universal, but Linklater keeps it grounded in specific moments in time, carefully weaving in cultural and political touchstones ranging from Britney Spears to the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
Although Boyhood is nearly three hours long, it feels half the length. Despite telling a fascinatingly complex saga, Linklater’s sure storytelling touch never falters. He nimbly leads viewers through the twists and turns of Mason’s life, never bogging down in any single section or racing too fast through an essential moment. If it weren’t for the amazing experience of seeing these characters literally age before our eyes, it would be impossible to believe the film was shot in such a fragmented manner. Many of the most explosive moments in Mason’s life occur off-screen, allowing Linklater to instead focus on the consequences for Mason, his sister (played by Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter), his parents and others with whom his life intertwines. While the film never strays from Mason, Linklater’s generous cinematic nature leaves room for all his characters. Figures that initially seem one-dimensional, or only there for comic relief, gradually reveal unexpected depth and humanity. In particular, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke (as Mason’s parents) beautifully explore the ever-evolving challenges of adulthood, and how the search for maturity and meaning never ends, in a manner that perfectly balances Mason’s tale of youth.
Childhood has provided the subject for some of the most magical films in history. Boyhood will stand among these rare works that illuminate that unique moment of our existence. In lesser hands, the film’s protracted production could have devolved into gimmickry, but here it provides an essential element of realism in a lyrical work that stunningly captures the unceasing turbulence and ecstasy of life.