Austin, Texas-based filmmaker Richard Linklater has an abiding interest in the passage of time. His career-making second film, Slacker, takes place on a single day but seems to exist outside temporal constraints. The director's Before trilogy (Before Sunset, Before Midnight and Before Sunrise) follows one couple's evolving relationship at 10-year intervals. Linklater's Boyhood reimagines time in a way no one previously found the will to attempt.
Boyhood is a work of narrative fiction shot in annual three- to four-day bursts over the course of 12 years, allowing the film's principle characters to age naturally on screen. Title character Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is a first-grader when we meet him and an incoming college freshman when the story ends. Linklater's ingenious methods were fraught with peril — for starters, the film's ultimate completion hinged on the long-term health and devotion of actors including Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette (as the boy's parents, Mason and Olivia), along with the continuing patience and faith of film distributor IFC. Rather than plan every detail of his inherently ambitious film, Linklater allowed his story to develop over time in an organic and collaborative way that draws from the real lives of his actors, especially the children. Constructed from small moments and capturing something true and familiar from life as virtually everyone experiences it, Boyhood hits you where you live. It's a remarkably successful experiment but not an experimental film.
Boyhood's nature makes spoilers impossible — there's nothing one can say about the film that would damage the experience of seeing it. The characters come together, drift apart, go bowling, have regrets and manage to find meaning in their lives — or not. The particulars are simultaneously crucial and inconsequential, at least in terms of storytelling on film. Boyhood is all about the cumulative effect of watching believable lives unfold in cinematically compressed time. It seldom feels episodic. Transitions between years are mostly seamless, whether the kids arrive at an age of barely perceptible or wildly dramatic change. The cast worked from something Linklater calls a "structural blueprint" rather than a script, with the four principle actors (including Lorelie Linklater, Richard's daughter, who plays the boy's older sister Samantha) contributing to the story and characters. A collaborative spirit drives the film and helps make everyday events seem universal and significant. We care about these people from the start.
Despite Boyhood's leisurely pace and nearly three-hour running time, you may fight the urge to go back to the beginning of the story when it ends. It's not that the film is especially repeatable. It's more a matter of wishing to fully understand something that just eludes grasp: the unfathomable scale of an individual life. That is something only known through moments we describe as the here and now. The larger picture of life as it exists over time is brought enticingly near to focus by Linklater's landmark film.