A boy lies on the grass outside of school, peering up at the clouds in the sky through his squinted blue-green eyes, sparkling round orbs that match the bold stripes of his shirt. The boy is entranced, caught in the haze of an afternoon daydream, thinking about the world and his place in it, or maybe something more simple, like the smile of a cute girl in his class or how he wishes he were a superhero or which TV show he’s going to watch later that night.
While the boy lies outside, his mother is inside at a parent-teacher conference. The Coldplay song “Yellow” plays over the top and then fades into the background as the boy’s mother walks outside and tells him it’s time to leave. They hop in the car and head home.
The boy sits in the back seat, looking out the window and then down at himself, fidgeting as his mom talks to him about his classroom behavior. He fails to turn in his homework assignments — the teacher never asks for them, he says — and broke the pencil sharpener trying to make arrowheads for his rock collection. If it can sharpen pencils, why not rocks, too, he suggests.
These first few minutes are a clear indicator of what we are about to witness: an extraordinary look at the ordinary life of a young boy, his journey from childhood to adulthood and the many experiences and interactions — or “little punctuations,” as writer-director Richard Linklater calls them — that he has along the way, most with his family but plenty of others with friends, mentors, and peers. It’s a sweeping epic, and yet, it is unbelievably intimate, and effortlessly soulful.
Two decades ago, writer-director Richard Linklater released Dazed and Confused, a film about the ordinary occurrences of a group of high schoolers, from incoming freshmen to new graduates, on their last day of school — better known by teenagers as The First Day of Summer Break. Over the course of the next twenty years, Linklater would write and direct three more films (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, and Before Midnight) that span the course of one day, this time centered not on a group of adolescents but on two adults, capturing their connection and their respective places in life at three distinct points in time.
Ironic, then, that Linklater’s most recent effort, Boyhood — starring Ellar Coltrane as the boy of the title, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as his parents, and Lorelei Linklater as his sister — spans not one day but 12 years, tracing the maturation of a boy named Mason (Coltrane) from age 6 to age 18. It’s an interesting combination of Linklater’s approaches to Dazed and Confused and the Before… series, an examination of how people change over time but strive to live in the moment.
The pop culture and technology of each specific year help frame the different segments of the film. Mason’s sister Samantha annoys him by singing Britney Spears’ “…Baby One More Time”; Mason and a family friend jab the air with controllers in their hands to try to knock the other’s charcter out in a game of Nintendo Wii Boxing; and Mason and his father use iPhones to FaceTime across hundreds of miles via a laggy cell signal. These are only a few examples, as numerous other scenes gain added poignancy from the perfect use of music, movies, video games, and other cultural touchstones of the 2000s.
Each song or pop culture reference allows the audience to jog their collective memories and think about the many changes in their own lives or the lives of their kids. Some of us cringe at the sound of the music we listened to years ago, while others recite the lyrics or tap their feet with enthusiasm, remembering the joy of those moments and yearning to relive them.
The whole project could have been a failure had its conceit been used as nothing more than a gimmick, a way to trigger feelings of nostalgia among its audience, but luckily that is not the case here. Instead of getting caught up in the past, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood continually moves forward, never back, reminding us that yesterday can be revisited only in our minds. And as Mason matures with each passing year, so do his sister Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater), his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), his father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and everyone else around him. So, too, do we — and so does Mr. Linklater, the man with the vision and drive to tackle a project with this much ambition.
To watch Boyhood unfold over the course of 160-plus minutes is to watch Linklater develop as a filmmaker; he becomes more assured in his writing, more varied in his setups and compositions, more willing to follow his instincts and let the story (such as it is) on-screen unfold naturally as each of the actors he has put together make their own ways through life. Linklater’s visual and thematic styles are apparent here — for example, we see long takes of characters walking through the city, and we listen to these characters move from nervous small talk to deep discussions and philosophical musings. Linklater’s abilities have been honed over time, captured in one film for all of us to see.
The features of each character in Boyhood change as the calendar moves from one year to the next, and those changes are built into the film. Coltrane begins to grow raggedy facial hair, Lorelei Linklater dyes her hair a bright hue of red, Arquette goes through varying stages of weight gain and weight loss, and Hawke morphs into a middle-aged man with a mustache and a bit of a gut, though his boyish looks and charm remain. It’s like taking a Polaroid each year and posting them next to each other; we can’t really see ourselves change over time, as it is happening, but with a picture — or in the case of Boyhood, a feature-length film — to remind us, the process is astonishing.
Over the course of the film, we grow more affected by and more connected to these characters. We remember the first time we were truly enamored with the opposite sex. We understand the anger in being forced to get a haircut, and the distress of having to go to school the next day. We relate to the uncomfortableness of being talked to about sex by our parents for the first time. We recall the pressures of trying to fit in with the “cool kids”, by drinking our first beer or making up stories about our various trips around the bases (with someone a few towns down the road, of course).
We remember our first job, our first car, our first heartbreak, the times we went camping with dad or visited grandma with mom. We remember what it was like to graduate high school, to be excited to leave for college and finally be on our own while our mother sat in the living room, sobbing. What Richard Linklater does so well in his films, more than anything else, is capture life and depict it in a way so that his audience can relate, no matter their ages or circumstances. With Boyhood, Linklater proves he doesn’t plan to stop that routine any time soon; it’s tried and true, producing plenty of deeply touching films over the years, his latest effort obviously included. It is a profound work, yet so very simple and accessible.
At its core, Boyhood is a vivid memory of growing up, an intimate portrait of the maturation process, successfully tracking the milestones and mundanities of one’s journey into adulthood by bringing us all along for the ride. It is moving and heartfelt, astonishing in its ambition and breathtaking in its execution, a true piece of art that will not soon be forgotten.
Grade: ★★★★★ out of ★★★★★
MPAA Rating: R for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use
Runtime: 166 minutes