Boyhood Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke. Directed by Richard Linklater. Rated R. Opens Friday.
By now, odds are you’ve heard the story of Boyhood’s unique creation—of how director Richard Linklater, who’d memorably captured the passing of time in his Before trilogy (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight), spent 12 years shooting the movie, a little bit each summer, in order to observe its protagonist as he grows from a rambunctious 6-year-old into a college freshman. And maybe you’re harboring a little polite skepticism about whether that approach really amounts to much more than a cute gimmick. Is Boyhood the cinematic equivalent of one of those photo sets that turn up online with some regularity, showing the same family members or friends recreating the same pose multiple times over a period of many years? Those can be fascinating, to be sure, but they don’t take nearly three hours—Boyhood’s running time—to flip through.
As it turns out, the most surprising thing about this superb film is how little it feels like a stunt. Linklater doesn’t make a big deal out of the annual leap forward—often, it takes a moment to register that another year has passed since the previous scene—and he’s deliberately omitted most of the obvious signposts one would expect from a literal coming-of-age story. Mason (long-gestating newcomer Ellar Coltrane) doesn’t have his first kiss onscreen, much less lose his virginity, and there’s relatively little drama involving his divorced parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Instead, Boyhood is a compendium of glancing, offhand moments of the sort in which Linklater has specialized throughout his career. Indeed, by the end of the movie, Mason has turned into a young man who’d look right at home in 1991’s Slacker.
Those who demand a strong plot from their movies, with clear forward motion toward a discernible goal, will likely be frustrated by Boyhood, which ambles along at the unhurried pace of ordinary life. Thing is, though, the film falters most on the rare occasions when it takes a stab at more conventional drama. One year is dominated by Mason’s drunken, abusive stepfather (Marco Perella), whose angry tirades threaten the delicate balance that had been established. Such overt conflict is unnecessary—watching Mason learn to navigate the currents of ordinary relationships and develop his own distinct personality is a pleasure in itself. Mom and Dad, likewise, make excellent company as they make their bumpy way across a decade and change, as does their other child, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), who’s so vivid that she deserves a three-hour Girlhood of her own. Sure, it’s amazing to watch Coltrane blossom, but you can see that happen in the trailer, in a matter of seconds. Despite being conceived as a long-form project, Boyhood stays grounded in the present at all times, and that’s its secret weapon.