Yesterday my husband and I saw Boyhood, the new film from Texas indie director Richard Linklater, in a local theater. This film, while playing mostly the indie-art house circuit–you’re unlikely to find it in your local multiplex–has been garnering a great deal of critical acclaim since its release in August. In my opinion, it is totally deserved. Boyhood is unlike any other film I’ve ever seen and I think it stands as a tremendously ambitious and successful experiment in the media of cinema. It’s also an amazing comment on the nature of time, which is a subject that greatly interests me; my long-long-long term writing project, The Valley of Forever, is about the same topic.
At first glance, you might think that there’s not much going on in Boyhood. It’s a movie about a boy, Mason Jr., played by Ellar Coltrane, growing up in Texas. He has an obnoxious teenage sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), a mostly-absent but still loving father (Ethan Hawke), and a mother (played by Patricia Arquette) who means well and works hard but who is continually laid low by her poor life choices, especially when it comes to men. The movie begins when Mason is about 7, and he goes through the usual depredations of tween- and teen-hood, and then goes off to college.
This is the kind of movie, however, for which a plot summary is completely inadequate. The movie was filmed over 12 years, utilizing the same actors who came back year after year, aging in real time. There’s no make-up or photographic trickery. Indeed the transformation of Ellar Coltrane from a 7-year-old to a college student is both totally real and incredibly profound. At its heart, Boyhood is essentially a time-lapse vision of a portion of a human being’s life. I can think of very few movies where the passage of time is depicted quite so accurately and with such devastating effect.
That’s why I say that Boyhood, despite all the buzz about it being “growing up” or a “portrait of the middle class” or such, is really not about those things, nor is it about Mason as a character though of course he’s crucial to it. It’s really about time. One of the details I loved about the movie was that Linklater did not intend it to be timeless, meaning, floating in a more or less constant present. An early scene in which characters briefly watch a news report on the Iraq War firmly peg the time frame as 2003; later on, characters discuss the 2008 Obama-McCain election; the evolution of Mason’s cell phones and his almost unconscious relationship with technology shows the development of the world during the 12 years over which Boyhood was created. The film is like being a fly on the wall, frozen in time as the world changes around the viewer. You’re in Boyhood for 165 minutes–a staggeringly long running time for a film with virtually no plot–but the characters and filmmakers spent 12 years with it. Indeed, actor Ellar Coltrane grew up making this movie. The passage of time, which is indifferent to those it touches, is the real subject of this film.
The performances in this movie are stellar. While I doubt Ellar Coltrane will be up for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance, he probably deserves one. I could easily see Ethan Hawke or Patricia Arquette picking up Oscars for their roles. Hawke plays an especially difficult character, the carefree, out-of-the-picture dad who seems (at first) to care more about his Mustang GTO than his kids, but over the course of the film he becomes an endearing personality and ultimately the pillar of support on which his son relies. The writing is also excellent. Linklater, most famous for his 1993 film Dazed and Confused, shows us real teenagers doing real things, without lapsing into stereotype, moral judgment or sensationalism. The character of Mason grows into a thoughtful, contemplative, somewhat quiet and reserved youth. It’s extremely rare to see a teenage male portrayed that way in a movie.
This sort of “I took a selfie every day for 7 years” type of video, several of which have gone viral in the past few years, is an extremely simplified version of what Boyhood sets out to accomplish.
While I say Boyhood is about the nature of time, it comes at it from a totally different perspective than I’m dealing with the subject in my book The Valley of Forever. My book is science fiction, emphasizing time’s oddities and its immensity. Boyhood shows us time’s ordinariness, in which is hidden its profound and transformative nature. Recently a couple of videos have gone viral on YouTube involving people, usually young men, who compile hundreds of “selfies” of themselves taken every day for a period of years, and when strung together form an eerie flickering time-lapse effect that shows us this same transformative nature of time. Boyhood does something similar, but in a much more real and emotional way.
I highly recommend this film. In a summer crammed with pointless noisy superhero action movies, Boyhood demonstrates that cinema still has unparalleled power to show us the world in new and startling ways. It’s the best film of 2014. See it, and be amazed.