Two moments in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood seemed absolutely real to me. It’s night, and in the skeleton of a half-finished home, a circle of teenage boys drink and butt egos. Amid angst and awkwardness, I feel a pang to reach for a beer can that isn’t there. Later, at a family birthday party, everyone claps as the flames of sixteen candles are blown out. For a split-second I feel I should be clapping too.
Boyhood pushes naturalism to its natural conclusion. The cast, including Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei, ages twelve years over 164 minutes. The narrative experiment rarely feels written, with conflict evolving subtly from character rather than arbitrary plot. As such, Boyhood can feel unsatisfying in a strictly narrative sense. Like life, the series of scenes is no greater than the sum of its parts; better to enjoy it while it lasts than parse it for meaning that isn’t there.
We begin in 2002 with a seven-year-old Mason Jr. (Coltrane) staring into the sky. He is imaginative and bright, if a less than model student. Unlike his sister Sam (Linklater), who gets straight As and serenades him with “Oops!… I Did It Again,” adding insult to injury. Single mom Olivia (Arquette) does the parental heavy lifting, while Mason (Hawk) takes the kids camping and bowling and to baseball games on weekends.
As Mason Jr. grows, we see the ripples of his childhood widen. By high school, he’s a talented photographer who can’t be bothered to stick to the curriculum. And like those squares of wet paper drying in the darkroom, each scene in Boyhood is a snapshot of the character in a particular place and time. The finished film is a flipbook of those images, specific enough to feel deeply personal and universal enough to evoke empathy.
Though most of the drama is pared down to a believable scale, Linklater plays with suspense in certain scenes, inserting dangerous elements and subverting expectation. The moments that do acquiesce to sensationalism feel tonally out of place, jarring the audience temporarily back into their seats from the participatory place they sat prior. It’s a place Linklater has taken audiences Before.
Comparisons to the Before series, also starring Ethan Hawk, are inevitable. But where those films encapsulate the subtle nuances of adult life and love, Boyhood explores the broad, sweeping changes of adolescence. There is an inherent intimacy to Linklater’s esteemed trilogy: three films, two people, one conversation. Boyhood, by comparison, is an erratic EKG of feelings, places, people, and time coalesced into a well paced two-and-a-half hours. And yet, despite its ambition, Linklater’s tete-a-tete masterpiece remains the more impressive work. “Why am I here?” is as much a question for Boyhood as it is for its characters.
Still, simply existing is reason enough to recommend Richard Linklater’s impressive experiment. Boyhood cuts to the core of the human experience and delivers something engrossingly lifelike. Part drama, part time capsule, this series of vivid vignettes features opaque performances and honest observations on life from four unique perspectives: mother, father, daughter, son. Each of us has filled at least one of these roles in our lives, and will doubtless draw parallels with the characters on screen. For a split-second, they may even come to life.