- Boyhood (2014) movie review: Time is literally the essence in screenwriter-director Richard Linklater’s boldly conceptualized and capably acted family drama.
- Boyhood earned Patricia Arquette the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award. The movie was nominated for five other Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Ethan Hawke), Original Screenplay, and Film Editing (Sandra Adair).
Boyhood movie review: Richard Linklater connects human interactions to the passage of time in well-acted and uniquely assembled family drama
Filmmaker 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 brilliant new movie, which took more than 12 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. Mason is a quirky kid with an unusual perspective on life (which may have been the case with the boy Coltrane as well). The mother struggles to support her children while their ne’er-do-well father (Ethan Hawke) roams about in his vintage GTO, writing songs that aren’t bad but that aren’t good enough to pay the bills and never will be.
A number of powerful things happen to this family over the course of Linklater’s 166-minute – and 12-year-long – film, but none is more fascinating than the conception of the film itself.
Consider this: The early scenes in Boyhood were shot 12 years prior to the scenes that will ultimately close it.
Thus, over the narrative arc, the viewer becomes suddenly aware of the passage of time. In some instances, that happens 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.
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. Yet not quite.
Although that is most evident in the youngest character, Mason, whose life is our focus, it is also obviously true of all the recurring characters in Boyhood.
The passage of time thus presents to the audience the same set of characters – and the same set of actors playing them – in different circumstances and 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.
Dealing with the uncontrollable
During those elapses of real time, the Boyhood actors – and 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 imagined, 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.)
Of course, the writer-director knew that the passage of time would matter; it’s how it would matter that he could not control. And yet each Boyhood sequence is as informed by the passage of time as it is by Linklater’s carefully composed screenplay, written 12 years before the last day of shooting and, by his own reckoning, the source to which he kept with the faithfulness of a filmmaker telling a story with an ending on which he intended to land.
Admittedly, Linklater doesn’t always pull off this otherwise extraordinary undertaking. 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 as theme
Also of note, among Richard Linklater’s movies, time as a specific theme is most evident in his trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight, shot between 1994 and 2011, and each with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy portraying the same characters.
This trilogy speaks to a number of recurring themes in the filmmaker’s work, 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 mid-1970s Texas town in his 1993 cult classic Dazed and Confused. Or it can be a random moment in the lives of any of the titular characters in his 1991 comedy-drama Slacker. Or, for that matter, it can be seemingly wasted in his little-seen 1988 feature debut It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, 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 this year’s 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 – over time – has become one of the most impressive in the history of filmmaking.
Direction & Screenplay: Richard Linklater.
Cast: Ellar Coltrane. Patricia Arquette. Ethan Hawke. Elijah Smith. Lorelei Linklater. Steven Chester Prince (as Steven Prince). Libby Villari. Marco Perella. Charlie Sexton. Jennifer Griffin. Nick Krause. Brad Hawkins.
“Boyhood (2014) Movie Review” endnotes
Richard Linklater quote via the New York Times.
Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane Boyhood movie images: IFC Films.
“Boyhood Movie (2014) Review: Brilliant Exploration of Time” last updated in January 2022.