Boyhood opens on a 6-year-old child. He is big-cheeked and blond, first daydreaming in the grass and then bleary-eyed in the top bunk, hurling a pillow at his sister for singing Britney Spears. Three hours later he is dark-haired, gangly, patchily bearded, tripping balls in Big Bend Park with his college roommate’s beautiful friend, working up the courage for a kiss. What passes between is a feat of Richard Linklater’s patience, shot at intervals over a twelve-year period with a mostly untrained actor (Ellar Coltrane) in the leading role of Mason. Such willingness to persist with a potentially futile project has usually resulted in documentaries, not fictions, and even then, looking at the most familiar recent instance of lives filmed over time, it must respectfully be noted that Michael Apted gets seven-year breaks. Linklater told an interviewer in 1994: “Film is not a good medium if you need instant gratification.”
For the audience, this film gratifies in the same way that Muybridge’s photographs of horses did, by shocking with the beauty of the animal in motion. Although Mason is surrounded by professional actors advancing a fictional story, the true story is his getting bigger. He is puppyish, then gawky, then pretty in the androgynous way of teenagers, then gawky again, and somehow it’s enough to hold our interest. As viewers in the 1870s studied those black-and-white hooves to see, for the first time, whether all four were ever simultaneously airborne, today you can buy a ticket for Boyhood and study Ellar Coltrane.
The story of Mason’s boyhood is a straightforward suburban family drama, maybe a few rungs down the class ladder from the work of Nicole Holofcener. The mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), is trying to finish her education while raising Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) in the suburbs and small cities of east Texas. Marrying and then divorcing a college professor who becomes an abusive alcoholic, Olivia becomes a professor herself, remarries, divorces. Meanwhile the kids’ dad, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), collects them on weekends to take them camping and to baseball games and to impress upon them the virtues of the post-breakup Beatles. At some point, Mason picks up a camera and decides to become a photographer.
The pacing is typical Linklater, but it takes a while to see this. Since most of his best films combine a tight twenty-four-hour timeframe and loose, leisurely storytelling, he’s never had to contend with Life Events. Now he faces marriages, divorces, births, breakups, and graduations. His approach to Life Events is to not show them directly. One day Mason Sr. shows up in his accustomed black GTO; later, he’s driving a minivan, with a baby and a new wife. A man puts his hand on Olivia’s lower back; in the next scene, they’re sharing photos of a honeymoon in Venice. Something in this feels accurate to a (young) child’s vantage on life. A man you’ve seen twice is introduced as your new dad. Oh, and say goodbye to your friends, because we’re moving to San Marcos. The adults made these decisions offscreen.
Freed from his usual time limits, Linklater gets sequences never previously captured in a fiction film. We cut from 13- to 14-year-old Mason. It’s 2008, and he’s driving around with his dad and Samantha handing out yard signs for Obama. There’s a house with a confederate flag. The doorbell is rung. A man appears who will not be allowing anyone to put an Obama sign in his yard. When Mason asks anyway, the sound of his freshly broken voice is startling. When have we heard a boy’s voice change between frames in a narrative feature? Watching two actors of different ages play versions of the same character is no approximation for a scene like this, where the change is irreversible and you do not get retakes. The child we were watching thirty seconds ago is gone.
Another example, two years later. Mason, one day shy of 16, is making out with his girlfriend in the back of a station wagon that is parked in front of his house. “One last hit,” his friend says, passing a joint, and Mason takes it. He wears a sweatshirt and long hair, and he’s gotten his height, we realize, when he climbs out through the window and lopes up the path to the front door. Inside, his mother and her new husband have friends over. Exposed by the warm light of the living room, Mason is obviously high and drunk. But unlike the Mason of two scenes ago, this one has a kind of lethargic, defiant eroticism, and when Olivia confronts him in the entryway to ask if he’s been boozing, he raises his chin at her, half smiles, and says, “Lil’ bit.”
“Smoking?” she asks.
“Lil’ bit.” She can’t help laughing. Her child has learned to use his sexuality against her, and he is flirting his way out of trouble—the first time we have seen him do so. Though none of these scenes is special in isolation, in context they gain the clarity of evidence: here is how the animal runs, and here is the microsecond in the gallop when all four hooves come off the ground.
But the difference between a boy and a horse is that one has interiority and the other doesn’t. What’s ultimately odd about this film is that Mason remains so unaffected by his own growing up. He’s almost uniformly placid. He doesn’t get emotional. He occasionally looks like a teenager who won a contest in a mall and has been invited to appear on a reality show in which actors will play his parents. Particularly during his late teenage years, when the awkwardness of being in front of the camera must have been most acute, he gets slouchy and aloof, distant in a way that seems to lack intent. He never cries, never raises his voice. When his girlfriend cheats on him with a college lacrosse player, he does not lose his cool. When, toward the end of the movie, his father regrets that things didn’t work out between him and Olivia, Mason shrugs it off. “Would have saved me that parade of drunken assholes,” he says, kindly. Then he asks, “What’s the point?”
“I sure as shit don’t know,” says Mason Sr. “We’re all just wingin’ it.”
Thus are these men reconciled, who never really weren’t.
The Mason who never once gets angry at his girlfriend for humiliating him or his father for having left the family is the same Ellar Coltrane who appears in interviews, in which he gives one-word answers, deflects praise, and, when pressed to be revealing, expresses gratitude that some of his more embarrassing phases in high school weren’t caught on film. The interviews are actually worth watching in themselves, because they’re like the results of a social experiment in which a child actor spends years working with famous peers and a major director but is never exposed to a single second of publicity. Had Coltrane received the exposure that Ethan Hawke did after making Dead Poets Society, say, this movie might have turned out differently. More polished, more self-conscious. As it is, Coltrane’s naturalness renders Boyhood a singular beauty. What a relief to see a college-aged male on screen who looks nothing like Zac Efron, who is skinny-armed and quiet and not oppressively charismatic. Coltrane’s naturalness and lack of affect make the film. They also make it not quite about boyhood.
What this film is really about—what should have been its title—is parenthood. The characters who have the fullest emotional lives in Boyhood are those experiencing, as observers, the growing-up of children. The adults, Olivia especially, do all the things Mason doesn’t do, like cry or yell or give evidence of a full and complex inner life. When we last see Olivia, she’s watching as Mason packs for college. She has snuck into his luggage the first picture he ever took, and it embarrasses him. He takes it out. She starts weeping. “You know what I’m realizing?” she says. “My life is just gonna go, like that. This series of milestones, getting married, having kids, getting divorced, that time when we thought you were dyslexic . . . sending Samantha off to college, sending you off to college. You know what’s next? Huh? It’s my fucking funeral.”
“Aren’t you jumping ahead by, like, forty years?” says Mason, coolly.
“Just go, and leave my picture,” Olivia says.
In the next scene, Mason is driving to college in his pickup, listening to a band called—apparently without irony—Family of the Year, playing their song “Hero,” which goes: “I don’t wanna be a big man. . . . I’m a kid like anyone else.” For someone who has never left it, crossing Texas is a bit like crossing the entire country, and we get the vague, satisfying feeling of adult life cracking open. When Mason pulls over for gas, he takes out his camera. Briefly we entertain the hope that he will shoot something that reveals a private life commensurate with his experience. Instead he takes a postcard photo of a rusted lantern hanging from a tree.
Most artworks about childhood and adolescence have to account for the fact that children don’t see their internal crises reflected in the adults around them. This is why parents always say, “It’s not the end of the world,” and why to children it sounds like a lie. Childhood is that time of life when things are exactly as bad as they feel. Truffaut’s 400 Blows and Pialat’s Naked Childhood, as well as the first volume of In Search of Lost Time, the third volume in My Struggle, and many other comings-of-age are all concerned in some way with the cruelty, violence, and mercy of the adult world as it bears down arbitrarily on a single boy’s life. But this is not what really interests Linklater.1 Even standard coming-of-age scenes—Mason’s voice breaking, for instance—are moving not because Mason seems to experience them as such, but because the parents in the audience might.
To be nostalgic for your child’s youth, though, can be another way of wishing to be younger. Linklater himself was born in 1960 and grew up in suburban east Texas. His parents divorced when he was young, and from ages 9 to 17 he lived in with his mother in Huntsville, known mainly to non-Texans as the place where Texas executes its inmates. The prison’s name is Huntsville Unit. Like Mason, Linklater had a stepfather who was a guard. Like Olivia, his mother got her degree at a local college. When he was 17, he moved to Houston to be with his father. It was by his own account a happy childhood. “I got the best of both worlds,” he told an interviewer, meaning the suburb and the city.
Although the unnamed suburb in Dazed and Confused is basically Huntsville, Linklater had not, until Boyhood, made a semi-autobiographical movie. It’s a slightly weird progression for an artist. Most people start with the autobiography and move outward. 400 Blows and Naked Childhood (which Truffaut produced) were debuts, Joyce wrote Portrait before Ulysses, and so on. How did Linklater come to make fifteen other films before finally turning toward memoir?
I think the answer is that the film is memoiristic of something other than his childhood. Linklater started shooting this when his daughter was 8, or a few years before she’d hit puberty and become a totally different animal.
Shortly after I saw a screening, my mom called. She’s always liked the Before movies. “What’s this new one about?” she said. I said it was about kids getting older, or about parents watching kids get older, and that it ended with the main character going to college, where he seems pretty happy. “So it’s about loss,” she said.
Of all the American directors to come out of ‘90s independent cinema, Linklater is the least comfortable with violence and cruelty. He has a heart neither for action nor brutality. He couldn’t make a good thriller. When he tried in 1998 to do a 1920s bank-robber picture, it emptied a cool $17 million from 20th Century Fox’s vaults. Part of the problem may have been the director’s resistance to serving up ass-kickings. “[This is] the story of the Newton gang, the most successful bank robbers in history,” reads the summary on IMDB, “thanks to their good planning and minimal violence.” ↩