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Richard Linklater’s Boyhood

Richard Linklater, Boyhood, 2014, 35 mm, color, sound, 160 minutes. Mason (Ellar Coltrane).

TIME FLIES in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, which is both a conceptual tour de force and a fragile, unassuming slice of movie life. Two hours and forty minutes in length, it depicts the maturation of a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from a six-year-old child into an eighteen-year-old young adult. There has never been a fiction film quite like it.

“‘The clay of cinema is time.’” Tarkovsky’s axiom, paraphrased by Linklater in a conversation we had recently over the phone, has guided the director ever since Slacker (1991)—as has his own corollary that a film should be “locked in the moment and place of its making.” Linklater’s second feature, Slacker was emblematic of a generation—and of a promising moment in American independent film, when a handful of directors eschewed Hollywood production values and conventional dramatic structure to combine the influences of European art cinema with distinctly American imagery and culture. Set in Austin, where, in 1985, Linklater founded a film society in order to show such personal favorites as Tarkovsky, Bresson, Godard, and James Benning, Slacker perambulates a mile-long strip bordering the University of Texas campus, connecting by happenstance more than fifty incidents and roughly a hundred characters within a single day. In 1991, when Todd Haynes’s Poison won the grand prize at the Sundance Film Festival, jury member Gus Van Sant said that his vote had gone to Slacker. Haynes puts his formalism up front; Linklater buries his in the bedrock of his narratives. And if Jim Jarmusch is the post-Beat cinematic bard of rust-belt bohemians and downtown hipsters, then Linklater is the Longfellow of a less glamorous alt-culture—one that could pass for mainstream America, whatever that is. Jarmusch’s protagonists are loners. Linklater creates characters who marry, have kids, divorce, have jobs, and struggle to pay the rent and child support. He is a visionary of everyday life.

He is also extremely prolific and, in terms of genre, all over the map. In the quarter century between his first experimental feature, It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books (1988), and Boyhood, he made seventeen theatrical features, a TV movie, a TV series, and a feature-length documentary. Among his fiction films are a remake of the family comedy Bad News Bears (2005); several pop-culture comedies, including School of Rock (2003) and the darker, underrated Bernie (2011); and two rotoscope animations, the haunting Waking Life (2001) and the Philip K. Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly (2006). Paralytically paranoid, A Scanner Darkly was released the same year as the filmmaker’s activist social satire Fast Food Nation. Seeing them within days of each other, I wondered whether to join the fight against factory farming or slit my wrists.

But his radical adventures in sculpting time—the “Before” series (1995–2013) and Boyhood—are what ensure Linklater’s status as an “art” filmmaker: The “Before” films—Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), Before Midnight (2013)—are two-handers starring Ethan Hawke as Jesse, an American writer, and Julie Delpy as Celine, a French freethinker. Shot, respectively, in Vienna, Paris, and a Greek vacation town, they are, in part, Linklater’s tribute to the natural light, agile moving camera, and old-world locations that defined so many films of the French New Wave. Each of the “Before” movies captures a sliver of time in the lives of the two protagonists and the actors who play them. Jesse and Celine are in their early twenties when they meet in 1995 and spend one night together, promising to rendezvous six months later. That meeting does not take place until 2004, and when it does, it threatens to upend their now-settled lives. Nine years later, they are a couple with twin girls and a relationship that’s on the rocks. All three films have open, ‘‘Will they or won’t they” endings, which preyed on Linklater and the actors’ imaginations until nothing but a sequel would do. A fourth film seems inevitable.

About two years prior to Before Sunset, Linklater began work on Boyhood, a very different construction of the cinematic representation of extended real time. As in the “Before” films, the actors would age in concert with their characters, but the twelve-year narrative would be encompassed in a single film. Linklater wrote an outline, persuaded IFC to finance it even though there would be no return on the investment for more than a decade, and got a commitment from the four leading actors—Coltrane (and, crucially, his parents), Hawke, Patricia Arquette, and the director’s then-nine-year-old daughter, Lorelei—to shoot for three or four days every year for twelve years. The major script decisions were made in advance: that Olivia, Mason’s mother (Arquette), and Mason Sr. (Hawke) would already be divorced when the film begins; that Olivia would remarry twice and leave both of these husbands when it became clear they were abusive alcoholics; that she and the children would move around Texas because of these marriages and divorces and also because of her decision to return to college and become a teacher; that Mason Sr., well-meaning but feckless, would be only an intermittent presence in his children’s lives.

Chock-full of incidents—some vivid, some mundane—Boyhood has neither an obvious plot nor a narrative arc. It begins slowly, even awkwardly. Coltrane is a lovely looking, slightly dreamy child, but in his early scenes he stiffens up when he has to speak. Never mind, because within two years he’s made Mason’s words his own—and indeed some of them may well be his own. As he grows up, as his body elongates, his inner life deepens. Linklater considered some four hundred boys for the role; it was Coltrane’s introspective quality that won him the part. As Mason internalizes his experiences, we internalize the film. The effect is cumulative. Just as there is no single incident or central relationship that defines Mason’s character, there is no prescribed pathway for the viewer. When did I realize I was watching something extraordinary rather than an interesting experiment? When Olivia hustles her kids into her car, knowing she has to get away from her second husband before he hurts them, and Mason and his sister, Samantha, worry about what’s going to happen to the stepsiblings left behind; when, campaigning for Obama in 2008, Mason is confronted by a man with a Confederate flag in his tidy suburban yard who asks, before pointing out that he is legally entitled to shoot Mason for trespassing, “Do I look like a Barack Hussein Obama supporter?” (Linklater is a lifelong Texan); when Mason, always an observant child, gets interested in photography and is lectured by his high school teacher about how talent isn’t enough, it’s discipline that counts. This understated but unmistakable agglomeration of small truths elevates the film from the suburban picaresque it might have been (like Linklater’s Dazed and Confused of 1993) to something more sublime.

BOYHOOD went into production in 2002, not long after the first Harry Potter film opened in theaters. So Mason would have grown up with the novels and films of Hogwarts, and indeed, at one point, he goes in costume to a Potter book release, after which he has a conversation with his father about whether magic exists. Like the war in Iraq and the first Obama campaign, Harry Potter locked Boyhood into “the moment and place of its making.” But Linklater’s movie also serves as a counter-example. Like the “Before” films (not to mention Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries), the Potter films are a series. Daniel Radcliffe grew up along with his character, Harry, and also with the kids who turned out for the movies as they were released every other year. By comparison, Boyhood’s twelve years unspool in less than three hours, and the audience experiences the characters’ lives at high speed, and without breaks. The years fly by, their passage marked most explicitly by the physical changes Mason undergoes. Amazingly, we are rarely at a loss for where we are in time.

Gambling that film would still be a viable medium twelve years down the road, Linklater decided to shoot in 35 mm. Since video technology was changing rapidly, the seamless continuity that was his priority would be possible only with film. That medium lends Boyhood the sun-dappled look of a memory piece, despite being couched in the present tense—as a succession of present moments. The light in the opening shot, a pullback from an extreme close-up of Mason lying on the grass, looking up at the sky, could not have been as simultaneously soft and bright had it been recorded digitally. Therefore Boyhood in its entirety belongs to the past of cinema, just as Coltrane’s boyhood has passed before the audience ever sees Mason on-screen. The emotional resonance of the film lies in the way it makes us aware of the implicit temporal paradox of the movies—without destroying our belief in its fiction or our empathy with its characters. It’s a delicate balance, achieved in part because we have never before seen a small child develop into an adult in a single movie: not merely a fictional boy, who could be played successively by three actors, but character and actor as one. In the 1920s, Germaine Dulac’s stop-motion short film of a seed sprouting and growing into a full-size plant might have inspired a similar sense of wonder.

Toward the end of the film, as Mason prepares to leave for college, his mother asks herself where the time went. It’s the worst day of her life, she says, and her grief and inchoate anger are very much like those of Celine in Before Midnight, who also confronts time past as the loss of possibilities. It is the first time any character in Boyhood is overwhelmed by what has and hasn’t been, and the scene puts a brake on the narrative, foreshadowing the full stop soon to come. On the day that Mason begins his life as an adult, the college roommate he’s just met invites him on a hike to Big Bend National Park, a wilderness unlike anything we’ve seen in the film, its beauty enhanced for Mason and his new friends—who include a young woman with whom he has instant rapport—by the lysergic something or other they’ve swallowed. Looking toward what could be the edge of the world and listening to the stillness, Mason says simply, “It’s, like, it’s always right now.” No sooner have the words left his lips than the film is over and, for us, now is memory.

Boyhood, which makes its New York debut at BAMcinemaFest on June 18, opens in New York and Los Angeles on July 11.

Amy Taubin is a contributing editor of Film Comment and Sight & Sound.