Director Richard Linklater once said, “The most unique property of cinema is how it lets you mold time, whether it's over a long or a very brief period.” Indeed, time – and our relationship to it both philosophically and practically – has been an ongoing theme in Linklater's work over the course of his now lengthy career, and it is once again at the center of the writer-director's conceptually brilliant new film, which took more than twelve years to nurture: Boyhood.
When we first meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane), he's six years old and living with his mother (Patricia Arquette) and sister (Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker's daughter) in a small town in Texas; his dad (Ethan Hawke) is a better-than-average weekend-warrior of an absentee father. Mason is a quirky kid with an unusual perspective (and perhaps Coltrane was too); his mother struggles to support him and his sister, as their ne'er-do-well father roams about in his already vintage GTO, writing songs that aren't bad but that aren't good enough to pay the bills – and never will be.
There are a number of interesting and powerful things that happen to this family over the course of Linklater's 166-minute – and twelve-year-long – film, but none are more fascinating than the conception of the film itself. Consider this: the early scenes in Boyhood were shot twelve years prior to the scenes that will ultimately close it. Over the arc of the film, the viewer becomes suddenly aware of the passage of time; sometimes from one cut to the next, time has passed – and you become aware that time has passed because these people are the same people, but older. Later still, they are demonstrably older – and always actually older, rather than "movie older," which is a very different thing indeed.
'Boyhood' movie: Passage of time as in real life
Richard Linklater never marks the passage of time in Boyhood; it simply passes, as it does in life. You look away for what seems like an instant and the six-year-old boy has become an eight-year-old boy, which is to say a different boy altogether – but not quite. That, of course, is true of all the recurring characters in Boyhood, but is most evident in the youngest, the boy Mason, whose life is our focus. What this passage of time presents to the audience is the same set of characters in different circumstances and, literally, different stages of life, from when the film first begins to the last time we see them, year after year, for more than a decade: characters who are the same, yet not; actors who are the same, yet not. The result is a contemplative film that is also conceptually breathtaking.
During these elapses of real time, the Boyhood actors – and thus their characters – age and grow in any number of ways that shape the content of Linklater's narrative, including ways that the filmmaker could hardly have contemplated, let alone controlled. In fact, he couldn't even be sure his actors would return from year to year. (Lorelei Linklater quit more than once.)
Even so, there is a script Linklater was following for Boyhood, one he wrote twelve years prior to the last day of shooting, and that, by his own reckoning, he kept to with the faithfulness of filmmakers telling a story with an arc and an ending on which they intend to land. Still, each sequence in Boyhood is as informed by the passage of time as it is by Linklater's highly considered screenplay. Of course, the writer-director knew that the passage of time would matter; it's how it would matter that he could not control.
Admittedly, Boyhood is an extraordinary undertaking that Linklater does not always pull off. Sometimes, his progressive political ideas feel forced in. Sometimes, it's obvious that daughter Lorelei doesn't want to be there. Sometimes, the experiment feels like an experiment. No matter. Boyhood is brilliant.
Time in Richard Linklater movies
Time as a specific theme in Richard Linklater movies is most evident in his trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, shot between 1994 and 2011, each with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy portraying the same characters over time. The films speak to many recurring themes in Linklater movies, but central among them is how time affects relationships – physically, emotionally, and practically. Time in a Linklater movie is used to contain events, as in the last day of school in a Texas town in the mid-'70s in his cult classic Dazed and Confused (1993). Or it's a random moment in the lives of any of the titular Slackers in his 1991 film. Or, for that matter, it's seemingly wasted in his little seen feature debut It's Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), which is for the most part about a guy (Richard Linklater himself) doing nothing.
To date, Boyhood, which earned Richard Linklater the Silver Bear for Best Director at the 2014 Berlin Film Festival, is the filmmaker's most daring and direct cinematic exploration of time. This 12-year undertaking is also one of the most intriguing narrative film projects ever conceived and is another exceptional addition to Linklater's canon, which has become one of the most impressive in the history of filmmaking – over time.
Boyhood (2014). Director and Screenplay: Richard Linklater. Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Elijah Smith, Lorelei Linklater, Steven Chester Prince (as Steven Prince), Bonnie Cross, Libby Villari, Marco Perella, Jamie Howard, Andrew Villarreal.
Ellar Coltrane Boyhood movie photo: IFC Films.