Shot over the course of 12 years, Boyhood continues Richard Linklater’s experiments with cinematic time and follows the maturation of a family in real time.
When Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is about twelve, the last traces of baby fat still present, he spends a weekend camping and swimming with his father, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), who gives him some advice about how to talk to girls: “You have to ask them lots of questions, and then you have to listen, and actually be interested in the answers.” One moment they’re packing up camp, and the next, Mason is walking and talking with a girl (Evie Thompson) from school, following this advice, only he’s shot up and slimmed down, and it’s a year later. By the next year, he’ll be in the backseat of a car with her, making out. He grows up in the blink of an eye.
Shot over 12 years, in periods of a few days every year, Boyhood follows Mason’s physical and emotional growth, in real time, from a quiet, sensitive, and thoughtful six-year-old boy to a cynical, charismatic eighteen-year-old man starting college. Although the title suggests this is a film largely about Mason’s coming-of-age – he is the film’s anchor – the maturation of his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and his ever-evolving divorced parents, Olivia (a wonderful Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr (a sensitive Ethan Hawke), provide the context.
The film is told almost entirely from Mason’s perspective, but this is as much a film about parenthood as childhood. Olivia and Mason Sr make mistakes, but we never question their love for their kids. Because we witness those around Mason growing and changing in a contracted timeframe – two hours and forty minutes span a lifetime – we have a better understanding of their journey than Mason does. So when Olivia breaks down the day Mason leaves for college, crying “this is the worst day of my life!”, it’s funny because it’s hyperbole, but we also completely understand what she’s going through.
As a child, Mason has little control over his life. When his mother decides to move them to Houston so she can finish her degree, nine-year-old Samantha may matter-of-factly object, but before long, they’re painting over the markers of their height in their old house and driving away. The people in their parents’ lives become staples of theirs. When Linklater pushes in on a seven-year-old Mason noticing his mother noticing another man, the next time we see the flirting pair, they’re married. She first marries her professor (Marco Perella), an obvious slime-ball, and then an Iraq War veteran (Brad Hawkins), who takes longer to show his true colours: both turn out to be drunken assholes. But she learns from these experiences, eventually, and grows: she lands her dream job, teaching at a college, and when the second marriage goes sour, she handles it better than the first.
Since Mason’s father only rolls in on weekends, his bad choices aren’t on display in the same way as Olivia’s. But when he trades in his GTO for a minivan, finally settling down with a wife and baby, he, too provides a better environment for his kids, and proves a better father. He may have set aside his dreams of being a rock star, but he never stops loving music: now, he sings his songs with his family over a campfire and puts together the Beatles’ “Black Album,” a carefully curated collection of their solo work, as a birthday gift for Mason.
Things affect Mason deeply, and we’re reminded of just how tough seemingly small things can be in childhood. An unwanted haircut is traumatic. A small gift, like a feather, can become a treasure, when it comes from a father you haven’t seen in almost two years. An offhand, unrealistic promise gets taken at face value, and at fifteen, Mason will be disappointed when his father fails to make good on something he’s forgotten he said years ago. As Mason gets older, he develops a tougher skin, so that at sixteen, the cruel remarks from his mother’s drunken husband just roll off him, whereas at eight, he’d have been scarred.
This being a Linklater film, his characters are always talking thoughtfully, often in the two-shot he perfected in the Before… films: conversations are as much about the space between the characters as what they’re saying. When a few years in, Mason Sr takes Sam and Mason out one weekend, and they respond to his questions about their week monosyllabically, he demands, charmingly, that they actually engage in conversation; in return, Mason demands that his father do likewise. When Mason Sr gets a hunch about Sam’s first boyfriend, after seeing a boy in her Facebook profile picture, he attempts an awkward, but painfully realistic, conversation about safe sex. By the end of the film, they’ll have no problem talking on FaceTime. The more they go through together, the closer the kids and their parents become, the easier their rapport gets, and the better they get at using humour to confront and talk about the tough subjects.
When Mason’s a boy, his world revolves around time spent with his parents and those precious weekends with his father. The older Mason gets, the more we see him conversing with kids his own age. At a party, in intimate, alternating close-ups, we watch him talking to a girl, Sheena (Zoe Graham), falling in love. Skip ahead a year, and we watch them driving up to Austin, now partners in a two-shot, talking about how getting new email gives you a dopamine high. They’re visiting Sam, who not only helps them organize their trip but talks to them and shows them around her college and city; gone are the days when she’d wake him up in the early morning singing “Oops, I did it again,” for they’ve already made the transition to a more adult relationship. Eating nachos at 2AM, Mason and Sheena joke and talk, imagining a future together. They stay out all night, walking the city streets, and staring at the view from a rooftop, he puts his arms around her. We’re watching his first love unfold, and soon enough we’ll see the aftermath of it blowing up.
I first saw Boyhood in January, at Sundance, and I fell in love immediately with Linklater’s masterpiece. It was such an emotionally involving experience. Through the signs of the changing times – iPods give way to iPhones, Bush gives way to Obama, and Coldplay gives way to Lady Gaga – I relived the last twelve years with Mason. But I also relived my childhood: the ups and downs, the conversations with parents, the changing friends, and the first glimpses of romance. It was so seamlessly constructed that I couldn’t figure out how it was transporting me so well, or why, by the end, it all blurred together and felt like a memory.
I’ve seen the film three times now, and only because I’ve watched very deliberately and carefully for it, I have a better feeling for how it works its magic. We don’t notice the jumps in time because a scene a year later seems to follow naturally from the previous scene the year before. When Mason moves to a new home, we next see him getting ready for school one morning, only it’s a year later. When Mason takes photographs on a trip with his father, the next scene finds him developing photos in a darkroom, only it’s a year later, and he’s acquired an earring. Everyday rituals blur together.
Linklater has captured the passage of time before, most notably in his Before... series, which picked up with lovers, Jesse and Celine, every nine years, at a new stage in their lives. But each of those films was frozen in time, a snapshot of an afternoon or evening of intense discussion. In “Boyhood,” time is always marching on, and we never know when it will sneak up on us. Likewise, Linklater’s camera is almost always moving, only pausing now and then to take in a key moment.
Out of nowhere, without warning, Mason’s voice cracks and then deepens. He gets taller and thinner, more assertive and self-assured. Sam’s hair changes colour; Mason Sr’s wrinkles deepen; Olivia’s belly swells; and everyone is always moving forward. There are no title cards to tell us a year has passed, nor any formula to tell us exactly when the next year will arrive: some years might last ten minutes and others fifteen. The small and insignificant moments accumulate until they’re more than the sum of their parts. When we watch Mason driving to college with the open road ahead of him, we can still see the six-year-old he was when the movie began, but we also see how everything, including the world, has changed.
Boyhood opens today in San Francisco, Toronto, Austin, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Minneapolis, Phoenix, San Diego, and Washington DC, and it continues to play in New York and LA. The film will be expanding to more markets over the next few weeks.
Director Richard Linklater will be in San Francisco tonight to give post-screening Q&As at the 7PM Sundance Kabuki Theatre screening (Buy tickets here) and at the 8PM and 8:30PM Embarcadero Center Cinema screenings (Buy tickets here).