By Daniel Barnes
There is a seemingly limitless stream of pure empathy that runs through Richard Linklater’s transcendental Boyhood, a wonderful film that is equal parts cinematic event, social experiment and life-affirming head trip. The story about the making of Boyhood is so fascinating and expansive that it has a lready threatened to overshadow the film. It certainly offers an irresistible hook for the advertising campaign – the 106-second trailer for Boyhood offers more context to the enterprise than Linklater does in the film’s 165 minutes of low-key humanist magic.
Starting in the summer of 2002, Linklater began shooting a series of short films starring five year-old Ellar Coltrane as a dreamy and withdrawn child named Mason. The project also intermittently featured Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as Mason’s estranged parents, as well as Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei in the scene-stealing role of Mason’s older sister. Linklater returned to Texas every year through 2013 to shoot more footage with the same actors, and the narrative matured and changed right along with Coltrane. The finished product is a masterpiece of storytelling craft, and an achingly beautiful ode to the mysteries of human development, as Coltrane literally grows into manhood before our eyes.
Rather than segmenting the film into year-by-year chunks augmented by explanatory dates and times, Linklater allows the narrative to flow with the familiar yet always unpredictable rhythms of real life. There is the feeling throughout Boyhood that Mason is simultaneously living and remembering his childhood, in the way that experience becomes memory the exact moment that it happens. In Boyhood, a child goes to bed one night and wakes up a year older. Ask any parent: it happens. Linklater spins a spider web of emotional connections across Boyhood, and despite the seemingly haphazard, stop-start nature of the production, it feels like Linklater is totally in control of the story every step of the way.
At the end of the film’s first seamlessly interwoven vignette, six year-old Mason and his family are moving away from their sleepy town to a new life in Houston. As the car drives off, a young playmate of Mason’s speeds up the road on his bike, already blurred by the tall grasses of fading memory. He is the first of many forgettable friends who will flit in and out of Mason’s life, some of them positive, some of them worrisome, almost all of them benign and fleeting. Late in the film, when Mason is a college-bound teenager, an adult friend of the family offers that post-adolescence is “where you find your people,” and Mason can barely refrain from rolling his eyes.
The miracle of Boyhood is that we empathize with everyone in this scenario – with the talked-at teen receiving clichéd advice from a man he barely knows, with the clueless adult awkwardly attempting to communicate an ultimately righteous idea to a younger generation, and even with the nameless and forgotten playmate starring in his own alternate-universe movie life. This is Renoir and Truffaut on their best days, and Boyhood is spilling over with such seemingly throwaway moments that unexpectedly coalesce into epiphanies of melancholy compassion. Linklater undermines expectations we didn’t even know we had, and the direction of a scene can rotate as subtly and surely as the hour hand on a clock.
Perhaps the most curious and intellectually invigorating aspect of Boyhood is the selection process, the moments in Mason’s life that Linklater elects to show. Linklater is a consummate humanist and a great communicator, so it’s no surprise that he favors small moments of self-discovery and conversational revelation over the usual ceremonies and cultural signposts. Fascinating suggestions arise from the accumulation of choices that Linklater makes, including the idea that the first time a boy lies about sex is more formative than his first actual sexual experience.
Richard Linklater has been an under-the-radar innovator for nearly a quarter of a century now, an existentialist auteur of human compassion and a beacon of light for Austin cinema and independent filmmaking in general. His has always been a positive influence, but with Dazed and Confused, the Before trilogy, and now Boyhood under his belt, Linklater’s spot in the filmmaking pantheon is eternally reserved. Just as the last decade-plus of mediocre Woody Allen comedies could never make Manhattan or The Purple Rose of Cairo any less magical, Linklater could crank out lunkhead Thor sequels for the next two decades without jeopardizing his reputation. Not that he ever would – to nearly every suspicious question about the state of film, Boyhood is the answer.