Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” may be why the movies were invented.
Twelve years in the making, the film is simply a fictional record of one average American boy as he ages from 6 to 18. Of course, there’s nothing simple about this. The boy is named Mason and he’s played by a Texas kid named Ellar Coltrane. He’s a baby-cheeked dreamer when “Boyhood” begins and when it ends — the better part of three hours and more than a decade later — he has matured into a rangy, self-possessed adult on the verge of his own life.
You could call the movie “Before ‘Before Sunrise,’ ” especially since Ethan Hawke is on hand as Mason’s feckless dad, very much a close cousin to Jesse of Linklater’s “Before” trilogy. “Life Itself” might also make a good title if it weren’t already taken. But neither of those gets to the quiet, unassailable profoundness of what the director and his cast have achieved here.
“Boyhood” is microscopic and macrocosmic at the same time. It follows the minutiae of Mason’s daily world while observing what it’s like to come of age in America at the turn of the millennium. It mutely chronicles how families break and reassemble while standing far enough back from the whole parade to ponder, with a joy that’s indistinguishable from sadness, how quickly it all goes and how small and ineffably large our lives are.
No other medium but cinema makes this possible: the art that unfolds in time (unlike photography or painting), that records external reality (unlike music) in audio-visual form (unlike literature). If a still camera proves the world exists (and ourselves in it), a movie camera proves we live and breathe and grow. Film can be humanity’s mirror, but all too rarely has it been used as such; most movies live in a frozen present among characters who never age. Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries are the rare exceptions, as is the “Before” trilogy itself. Andy Warhol’s “Sleep” and screen tests, maybe, and that guy who took a selfie of himself every day for six years and put it on the Internet. Movies can let us search for the mystery of existence under the guise of time-lapse narcissism.
“Boyhood” avoids the latter, in part because it was conceived and carried out as an experiment — Linklater and his cast convening for a few days each year, working hard to make the scripted dialogue feel natural — and largely because Coltrane gives his role a stubborn sense of self that precludes egotism. An observer by nature, Mason grows into a mellow kind of rebel who nevertheless shows flinty resolve. He’s a true American type — the morally grounded individualist — and at times toward the end you could swear you were watching Gary Cooper with gauges.
But Cooper’s characters fought bad men, and Mason just stumbles along with the rest of us, trying to figure out what it all means. There are villains in “Boyhood,” but the film views them with pity and even empathy: the bullies in the school bathrooms, the blowhard college professor (Marco Perella) who becomes a stepfather to Mason and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) until alcohol overwhelms him. Among many other things, “Boyhood” serves as a field guide to male roles and male behavior in 21st-century America, offering Mason infinite object lessons in kindness, insecurity, tolerance, fear, and attitudes toward women. When that authoritarian stepfather holds him down for an enforced whiffle-cut, you can see in the boy’s eyes just what kind of man he’s not going to be.
The film also serves as a breezy time capsule of its era, from changing video game consoles (PlayStation to Game Boy to Wii) to the hypersexualized pop songs little girls probably shouldn’t sing but do. To a younger generation, this movie may play as an overpowering nostalgia trip through their entire lives. If there’s a piece missing from “Boyhood,” though, it’s Mason’s peer network — the scrum of friends, rivals, and strangers against which a teenager measures himself, especially during the middle-school years. We catch glimpses of buddies here and there, a few girls; the stepfather’s two children (Jamie Howard and Andrew Villarreal) are fellow travelers who heartbreakingly disappear from the story midway through — lives crossed yet not followed up on. And toward the end there’s a girlfriend, Sheena (Zoe Graham), who educates Mason in mysteries both lovely and cruel.
Still, Linklater and his cast are more interested in the view from home and through their hero’s eyes, and the movie’s focus is on individuals rather than the crowd. (For the latter, I guess, see this director’s “Dazed and Confused,” possibly the greatest high school film ever made.) Those individuals age along with Mason, learning as they go — that’s the comedy and tragedy of the thing — so the dad played by Hawke morphs from a raffish musician to a paunchy working stiff with a second wife and child, and the sister played by Linklater (the director’s daughter) turns from tormentor to older, wiser confidante. You don’t see these changes happening; what’s seamless and unnoticed in life is elided by Sandra Adair’s graceful editing.
The mother, Olivia, is the second hero of “Boyhood,” and she represents a breakthrough for Patricia Arquette, who plays her. Some of this is time and hairstyles: Olivia begins as a harried single parent, just past her youth and trying to reinvent herself. A marriage and relationship or two later, she’s a professional watching her children vanish into the world, as much a survivor of their adolescence as they are. The performance is a small triumph of naturalism; Arquette gets this woman in changing body and weary, flawed soul.
“Boyhood” has a fondness and curiosity about people that extends to the relatives who buy Mason a Bible and a rifle for his birthday — this is Texas, after all, but, more to the point, Linklater wants to share their joy rather than judge them. In the end, though, it’s Ellar Coltrane’s movie, as it should be. Did the director simply win the genetic lottery when he picked this particular child to follow through the thickets of growing up? Or did he recognize a born Linklater slacker: standoffish yet engaged, cerebral yet leading with his heart, talking and feeling as intensely as he can? There’s a scene toward the very end in which Mason and some new friends are conversing casually and philosophically — intoxicants are involved — and someone says we don’t seize the moment so much as the moment seizes us. At which point Mason can’t help but marvel out loud at the moments that pile up, that keep piling up, one after another, until they create something so big we can scarcely contain it in our minds.
You might laugh; the kid’s high. But he’s right, too, and if you’re attuned to it, you can feel the universe shiver along with Mason as dusk falls. Linklater doesn’t give us all of this boy’s moments but many, many more than we’re accustomed to getting — enough to glimpse the outlines of that very big something in a way we’re normally too busy living to appreciate. “Boyhood” is a stunt, an epic, a home video, and a benediction. It reminds us of what movies could be and — far more important — what life actually is.