Near the end of “Boyhood,” Richard Linklater’s truly remarkable time-lapse portrait of a child growing up, the boy’s mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), is feeling wistful over his imminent departure for college. “I just thought there would be more,” she says — more to life, more to the experience of motherhood, more to everything. That rueful sentiment could be echoed by viewers of “Boyhood” who find the movie uneventful or dull — and I hope those viewers, like Olivia, realize they’re looking at it the wrong way.
Uneventful? Yeah — that’s life. “Boyhood” captures the bittersweet, sublimely humdrum process of growing up in a way that no other single movie has done, thanks to Linklater’s bold strategy of shooting it a few scenes at a time over the course of 11 years, starting when his lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, was 7. We almost literally see him grow up before our very eyes.
There are no major plot points, no big spoilers you could reveal, no surprising deaths or unusual developments. The “story” is that this boy, called Mason, goes through childhood and adolescence, experiencing the joys and sorrows common to that process. The film’s exceptional length (166 minutes) allows us to feel like we’re living Mason’s life with him, albeit a condensed version. But then, when you look back, doesn’t life always feel like it was condensed? That’s why you can’t expect there to be “more” than the ordinary sweetness of daily life.
Mason’s family situation is not atypical. He and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), live with their mother, who’s in college to become an teacher. The kids’ father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is in and out of their lives at first, but he becomes more conscientious as he matures. Olivia marries a college professor, Bill (Marco Perella), who drinks too much and is something of an authoritarian with his stepchildren. Mason Jr. goes to school, has friends and girlfriends, attends parties, drinks beer, smokes pot. He develops an artistic streak with an emphasis on photography. He endures the pressures and aggravations of adolescence.
Linklater got lucky with Ellar Coltrane, casting a 7-year-old for an 11-year project with no way of knowing ahead of time how it would turn out. (Plenty of cute and precocious juveniles are neither of those things as teenagers.) Coltrane seems to be a natural, though, in that he can “act” with appearing to be acting. It helps that Linklater started with only a loose outline in mind, tailoring the story over time to suit Coltrane’s emerging strengths and interests. Hawke and Arquette contributed to the writing as well (though only Linklater is officially credited).
The result is a movie that feels authentic and lived-in, less a film than an experience. Perhaps most impressive is that Mason’s life story reminds you of your own childhood even if your own childhood was nothing like his. Or at least that was the case for me. There was no divorce, alcohol, or dysfunction in my upbringing; I was the oldest of six children; Mom didn’t work outside the home. Except for us both being white American males, Mason and I have little in common. Yet I kept recognizing people and situations in “Boyhood,” noticing elements that felt familiar despite not actually being part of my story.
This universality is the key to “Boyhood’s” success. In letting it run for nearly three hours, Linklater gives the film room to breathe. In having it span so many years, he allows us to see the passage of time, and to reflect on how the years of our own lives roll over us. You can TELL an audience that time has passed, but the only way to make us FEEL it is to, well, let some time pass. It’s a rare thing to spend three hours in a theater and come out feeling like you’ve lived an entire childhood. “I just thought there would be more.” Nope. This is it. Life is 99% “ordinary” moments. Cherish them.
A- (2 hrs., 46 min.; )
Originally published at About.com.