As I’m thinking and grappling with Richard Linklater’s new film, I consider what’s outside of my computer screen, away from the blinking cursor on my blank Microsoft Word document. On the wall, near the entrance of this small Chicago apartment is a collage of photos and art that my girlfriend has posted. A few new photos, developed long ago, have been put up. She found these photos stowed away somewhere, as we still uncover lost items from a move that happened years ago. The striking images and mementos span well over 8 years of memory. The pictures, taken on her and her sister’s SLR film cameras, have such vivid textures that it’s hard to believe that some of these photos are reaching a decade’s age. One photo in particular, one of the new ones on the wall, has a slightly more beefy version of myself. Her cousins are in the photo, as we’re sitting outside at a table, painting each other’s faces. That was a nice moment that’s captured in that picture. The feeling I get from that photograph, and as I move my eyes to the other images in the collage, is essentially the feeling one gets when watching Boyhood: warmth on what time and its moments can offer a person.
There’s certainly a novelty to Boyhood that the press has acknowledged at great length: Richard Linklater’s life project spans 2002 to 2013, where the director brought his collaborators together for a week of shooting every year. The intent was to capture the sense of growth and aging in the most genuine way possible. The effect is stunning.
The film is told through the perspective of young Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). His mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) are separating. Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) are not passive observers to this separation; this critical breakup will dictate a series of life events that essentially shape who these children become.
Boyhood, like so many of Linklater’s other films, is an encapsulation of time. I hesitate to ever call Linklater’s films urgent in their use of time; after all, so many of his characters are usually spending their time walking and talking. But there’s a cumulative effect that develops throughout so many of his films whereby the audience is perpetually engrossed in the conversation and plights of his characters. And what’s critical in developing this engrossing aspect is Linklater’s penchant for specificity. With films like Bernie, Dazed and Confused, and now Boyhood, Linklater has crafted a uniquely specific sense of place throughout his films. The Texas landscape has never been quite as penetrating as it is in Boyhood though, whereby the region’s social and political inclinations sustain themselves as atmospheric touchstones to the development of his young characters mentality as well as the passage of time. From Mason Jr. reciting the Texas pledge of allegiance to the red state versus blue state mentality of the 2008 election, Linklater is delicate in how he sustains time and place throughout the film, without feeling particularly obligated to address cultural developments.
What Boyhood is is difficult to tie down. It’s exploratory in structure yet seamless in construction. Characters appear in one scene, never to reappear throughout the film, yet feel like they’ve made a permanent impression on both the viewer and Mason Jr. Take one of Linklater’s trademark long takes as Mason Jr, now in the 8th grade, walks down an alleyway with a girl riding a bike. Their conversation is what you would hear from anyone at that age: a slight discussion on schoolwork, on what they’re reading, on what everyone else is reading, and on who has a crush on whom. But the way it’s filmed, a sustained shot with Linklater pulling back as his two characters walk toward the camera, gives the scene unexpected gravity in its social permanence and its narrative immediacy. It’s at one point a cultural antenna yet too inherently personal and specific to be entirely universal.
Boyhood is specifically seen through a privileged white male perspective. Does this hinder its observations? It’s a difficult issue to reconcile at times, though the depth in which Linklater probes his characters gives everyone a sense of agency. As men, women, and children enter and exit the Mason Jr.’s narrative space, the film is constantly sympathetic to the woes and ordeals of its characters. And this speaks to how Boyhood captures the moment: Linklater makes conscious decisions throughout the film that highlights the struggles of growing up, of entering adolescence, of contending with a divorce, and of parenthood. A title like Boyhood is misleading; this is a film about boyhood, motherhood, sisterhood, fatherhood and life.
Linklater has made a point of telling stories in a way that are familiar but completely different in the way they are told. From his visual eccentricities found in films like Waking Life, A Scanner Darkly, or even Tape to the anti-narrative discourses of his Before films to the lounging-around vibe of Dazed and Confused , Linklater has always been a director to confidently reshape the language of cinema in a digestible and compelling way. With Boyhood, the director achieves this same sense of compacted pleasure: Linklater has taken the traditional coming-of-age story and told it in a way that has never been done before.