Everything and nothing happens over the course of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” Filmed in sequence across 12 years, this unprecedented experiment in long-term storytelling attempts to capture child actor Ellar Coltrane’s coming-of-age on camera, while stubbornly resisting the impulse to impose artificial drama on his relatively typical Texan adolescence. The tradeoff is a nearly three-hour film with little narrative thrust beyond the inevitable passage of time. That’s plenty for Linklater, who has had years to digest and accept creative decisions that might elude first-time viewers. Critical support, coupled with audiences’ natural curiosity about the stunt, should translate to reasonable business for this brave IFC-backed project, which challenges popular notions of dramatic development.
These days, Hollywood mostly subscribes to Alfred Hitchcock’s philosophy, “What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out?” By contrast, Linklater embraces those dull bits, treating milestones and banal moments with equal weight, and relying on the cumulative effect, rather than rigging any one of the film’s 143 scenes, to supply its emotional impact. (Let’s not forget to whom Hitch was speaking at the time, either: His interviewer, French director Francois Truffaut, went on to make one of the great naturalistic films about childhood with “Small Change.”)
With “Boyhood,” Linklater has created an uncanny time capsule, inviting auds to relive their own upbringing through a series of artificial memories pressed like flowers between the pages of a family photo album. But he is equally invested in creating new ones, as we come to know Coltrane’s fictional Mason and his slightly older sister, Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) via scenes that span nearly a dozen years (requiring only 39 shooting days during that time).
Mason is just 7 years old at the outset, doing all those things East Texas boys his age might: spraying graffiti on walls, studying the lingerie section of a mail-order catalog with friends, squabbling with his sister. Each of these memories might be expected to fade in time, but not the move to Houston that wraps this opening stretch, as Mason watches his best friend bicycling after their departing car.
Linklater manages to incorporate such scenes with minimal sentimentality, building a life through naturalistic vignettes: talking contraception with Dad (Ethan Hawke), doing chores around the house, being pushed around at school, flirting on the first job and so on. The director would allow approximately a year to pass between shoots, picking up to find the characters slightly transformed each time.
In Houston, Mason’s father re-enters the picture, back from Alaska and determined to be a “fun dad”: Hawke’s character comes loaded with presents, taking the kids out for bowling and junk food. Mason wants to know whether he and their mom, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), will get back together, and such questions press on our imaginations as well. The expectation — early on, at least — is that the film will conform to other stories, where every detail holds significance as part of some grand design.
But life doesn’t come neatly divided into distinct dramatic acts, and Linklater wants to capture the experience of childhood as authentically as possible, even if it means sacrificing the sort of inciting incident or long-term goal that typically sustains audience interest across a narrative. Here, the stakes are those of any parent: We are concerned for Mason’s well-being and want to see him turn out all right. But in the absence of traditional exposition, we are also desperate for context, flailing to reposition ourselves each time the film jumps forward.
Lovers come and go in both parents’ lives. Whenever Olivia finds a decent man, she marries him, until such time that his temper becomes too much to bear. The first of these separations brings dramatic fireworks early in the film, rendered all the more intense by the fact that Mason and Samantha are forced to leave their new siblings behind with an abusive and alcoholic stepfather (Marco Perella). The next one disappears without so much as an explanation, just one of the innumerable influences on the shaping of Mason’s emerging identity.
It’s not until Mason’s 15th birthday that the young man fully emerges as a Linklater character — that is, someone inclined to express his personal philosophy aloud, even if it means alienating his too-pretty-to-last high school g.f. (Evie Thompson). The film could conceivably have been more effective had it opened with the character in his midteens, perhaps flashing back to glimpses of a younger Mason (peering around a corner while his mom argues, for example), but Linklater commits to a linear approach that inches forward from elementary school until his arrival at college.
Parents with grown kids in the audience will likely be the most affected emotionally by “Boyhood,” which culminates with Mason leaving the nest, as seen through the eyes of all those who watched him grow up. As the moment sinks in, Olivia cries, “I just thought there would be more,” and she may as well be speaking on behalf of all the younger viewers: Mason is 19 when the film ends, and those his age will recognize many of the same cultural touchstones — from videogame systems to favorite pop songs to vague memories of 9/11 and Obama’s first election (as something important to their parents’ generation) — even as they struggle to grasp why a story that lacks conventional conflict or melodrama still deserves their attention. For them, “Boyhood” must be given time to sink in.
Like so many of Linklater’s projects, “Boyhood” will no doubt ripen with age. Certainly, there’s an enormous difference between the film as it is experienced at the moment of projection and the one that will settle in the days and months to follow. Nearly all the helmer’s pics so thoroughly reflect the moment of their creation that it would be fascinating to screen the film alongside a retrospective of the other work he’s created over the past 12 years.
Somewhat counter-intuitively, sticking to the same young actor (instead of casting the character with lookalikes of various ages, as other movies do) doesn’t necessarily solve the problem of working with kids: Coltrane is still stiff and somewhat unconvincing for the first few years of the project, but gradually grows more comfortable oncamera as he matures into a remarkably self-assured young man. Meanwhile, Lorelei Linklater has the opposite effect, making a stronger impression than Mason early on, then retreating into the background as her screen brother comes into his own.
Of course, in the span of time it took to make “Boyhood,” Linklater and Hawke also decided to follow up their 1995 swooner “Before Sunrise,” adding sequels nine and 18 years later. Apart from documaker Michael Apted (who checks in with 14 British kids every seven years for his “Up” series), these two time-lapse dramas position Linklater as the director most attuned to the effects of time on characters.
There’s a rough-edged, organic quality to “Boyhood” that recalls the work of those European helmers Linklater so admires: Fassbinder, Bergman, Bresson. On one hand, both the casting and decision to shoot on 35mm (right up to the format’s demise) give the project a uniformity of appearance, and yet, even though he claims to have decided on the last shot two years into the project, nothing feels predetermined.
Linklater allowed the script to evolve as Coltrane did, which explains why it feels less organized than we might want or expect. Barely finished in time for Sundance (with end credits and music clearances still incomplete), “Boyhood” was conceived as a chance to discover — rather than impose — a fate on Mason’s character. Now, after a very long wait, audiences finally have the chance to do the same.