It’s nothing new for Richard Linklater to demonstrate his fascination with the passage of time in cinema. Dazed and Confused took place on the last day of high school; his films with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, most recently Before Midnight, skip through the years in the life of a couple, their relationship moving from young passion to a maturity that’s both prickly and graceful.
Boyhood travels through time differently: Over 12 years, Linklater filmed his cast for a few days here, a few days there, capturing moments in the childhood of a boy named Mason — played throughout by Ellar Coltrane — and his family. The film flows so neatly from one moment to the next, from childhood bike rides to terrible stepfathers to high school girlfriends to the stumble into adulthood, that it’s easy to forget what a risky endeavor the whole thing was. Two established actors, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, were on board as Mason’s parents, Olivia and Mason Sr., but Coltrane was a wild card: There was no telling who he’d grow up to be.
And what did he grow into? Well, a boy: a pensive boy whose teen angst takes the form of mini-treatises on how the internet makes us not really appreciate life in the moment. Boyhood’s creation is audacious, but its story is conventional; it starts with its adult characters in familiar places (the put-upon single mom; the “fun” slacker part-time dad) and lets them, along with Mason, move gently toward a different kind of maturity. In the background, their lives change as much as his does: She escapes two shitty marriages and becomes a professor; Mason Sr. tries the marriage-and-kids thing again, but we know he’s serious this time because he trades in his GTO for a minivan.
Watching Mason change over the years is gloriously authentic, but most of the change is external; his character never shifts very far from the small boy who liked to stare out the window all day. Maybe this is a choice, to make him a cipher, a symbol of childhood onto whom we can all project, just as it was a choice to portray one kind of ordinary life, scene by scene, over the years.
Nearly every scene in Boyhood is beautifully true to the moment it depicts, whether that moment involves teenage boys posturing toughness or a dad making his daughter cringe with a talk about condoms. Every year, Linklater and his actors did something beautiful. As a whole, the movie is observational, natural, likable — a ballsy project made life-sized by the mundane.