What 'Boyhood' teaches us about life, real and fleeting

Richard Linklater's three-hour latest might be long, but its message in the heartbreaking, fleeting details.
Richard Linklater's three-hour latest might be long, but its message in the heartbreaking, fleeting details.

Time unfolds before us like a map. We can't see where the roads lead, nor can we be sure they won't bring us back to where we started. Richard Linklater’s beautiful, breathtaking "Boyhood" explores these roads, the creases and wrinkles of this map, and it concerns itself, at least in the material presented on screen, with the very ebullience and promise of young life.

But the movie's overwhelming power and poignancy comes from the knowledge that a person’s time on the planet will most certainly end, and that our only real task is to live in those moments, in the inconsequential in-betweeness, that makes up the arc of our journey.

What is perhaps most remarkable about Linklater’s film is its surface ordinariness. We watch Mason, a young boy of six, grow into a young man of 18. And we watch the actor who plays him, Ellar Coltrane, grow up as well. Filming a total of 39 days over 12 years, with the ongoing presence of Patricia Arquette as Mason’s mom, Ethan Hawke as his dad and the director’s own daughter, Lorelei, as Mason's older sister, Samantha, Linklater chose to manufacture as little drama as possible.

Even the movie’s most pulse-pounding episode, an unnerving confrontation with an abusive stepfather, sneaks up on you and then, uneventfully, is left behind. The movie is not so much written or acted but lived. 

Filmed with Linklater's customary eye-level, medium-to-wide shot frame, the nearly three-hour movie plays out as if we’re standing right alongside the characters. Whether you are the parent of a boy or a girl, or even just a person who has lived or is living through the phase of life depicted here, you can’t help but see yourself, your child, your sibling, mother and father in these people. It’s as if Linklater has captured with an awe-inspiring clarity the very process of living.

Crosscut archive image.

Ellar Coltrane, left, with Ethan Hawke in "Boyhood"

The movie is filled with the quotidian images of growing up: leaving behind the childhood friend (captured in a half-obscured shot of the friend waving goodbye to Mason as he moves away — forever); the first day at a new school; the sibling rivalry and the new step-family; the ever-changing hair cuts; the first drink and the first toke; the girlfriend and then the ex-girlfriend; the high school graduation party; the first day of college.

There are more specific time stamps as well. A TV news report about the war in Iraq; a scene in which Mason and Samantha plant Obama/Biden campaign signs on neighborhood lawns; and a wonderful episode involving the publication of the latest Harry Potter book.

Even though Coltrane is front and center in these scenes (and perfectly cast, a stroke of amazing luck for Linklater), it is Arquette and Hawke who exemplify the sorrow, the missed opportunities, and the hard work of turning into a grownup. This is especially true of Arquette’s character, a tough survivor with the one bad habit of picking the wrong men — surrogate fathers who Mason and Samantha are smart enough to shrug off.

Mason’s life trundles along, looking a lot like life for the rest of us. A time of eager anticipation of things to come dulled by the regret for things lost or let go; the languor of hanging out eclipsed by the days blurring into years; the marking of a decade’s love affair with technology via video games, a Wii, iPhones and Skype.

"Boyhood" collapses these signposts without fanfare into the steady onward flow of its narrative. I spent much of this film in a state of anxious intoxication, marveling at how quickly life can scurry along, and grieving for all those events that never get deposited into our tiny memory banks. 

Linklater conceived this film with two simple, organic and brilliantly strategic decisions. First, he chose to do away with the expected on-screen text announcing each “chapter/year” of Mason’s life. The kid walks out of one door a slightly chubby pre-teen and through another a thin, taller, peach-fuzzed 13-year old. Second, he resisted the temptation to mark the epochs of Mason’s life with distracting changes in film stock, grain, color or ear-grabbing music (he’s never been a practitioner of the sophomoric montage).

The entire film looks exactly the same from beginning to end. This has the disarming effect of portraying Mason’s life not as a series of episodes, but as a continuum, a barely perceptible march of time. At one point, Mason reflects on this progression, this unfolding, when he turns the old adage about “seizing the moment” on its head.

Life, this one-of-a-kind film tells us, is lived in the surrender to the fleeting urgency of those moments.

This review appeared earlier on The Restless Critic.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson

Rustin Thompson is a filmmaker, film critic and indie radio deejay. He enjoys strong coffee, red wine, IPAs and his wife and grown children. He is comfortable with the fact he will never be rich, but grows petulant if he thinks too much about it.