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Richard Linklater’s Momentous Boyhood Is an Experiment That Makes Time Visible

Richard Linklater’s drama Boyhood isn’t a documentary, but it has a documentary hook. Linklater filmed his leading actor, Ellar Coltrane, over 11 years, beginning when Coltrane was 7 and ending on the far side of puberty, when the boy was 18. So you see the actor go from cute and compact to a wee bit pudgy to long-waisted and deep-voiced, and the ongoing transformation alters the way you watch. Time in cinema is relative and easily fudged, but in Boyhood, the realness of time is central — and, in context, uncanny. You go, “Whoa, he shot up!” And you might find yourself thinking, as I did, “Oh, right, this is how it was when I was young and every atom was in flux, when I felt something new every second of every day and didn’t have a name for it.” Each moment is fleeting and, for that reason, momentous.

When we meet Coltrane’s character, Mason, in 2002, his parents have separated. His father (Ethan Hawke) has taken off for Alaska and his mother (Patricia Arquette) is chafing against the strictures on her life—against the feeling that first she was “somebody’s daughter” and now she’s “somebody’s mother” and that time is wasting her. The early scenes in the family’s small Texas home (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, plays Mason’s older sister, Samantha) are casual, mundane, not as ostentatiously transcendental as Terrence Malick’s in The Tree of Life, but the telling details build and begin to resonate. Mason likes arrowheads — he’s already taking the long view of civilization — and reads the latest Harry Potter and peruses a lingerie catalogue with a friend, Tommy, and sees a dead bird around the time his mom says they’re moving to Houston so her mom can look after them while she goes back to school. As they pack, Mason scrubs his height chart off the wall. His sister tells his friend on the phone, “Sorry, Tommy, Mason can’t come out today, we’re moving,” and says, “Good-bye, house … Good-bye, lawn,” and Mason sees Tommy bicycling toward them as their car pulls away; life already going, going, gone.

I don’t know how much of Boyhood Linklater mapped out a dozen years ago, but I’d like to think he watched his actors and his own life and let many of the details find him — let the story come over time. But maybe he’s just great at hiding the scaffolding. Nothing ever seems settled. When Mason and Samantha’s father shows up in Houston for a visit, he’s nervous, over-effusive, probably stoned. He wants to be a good dad — maybe even reconcile with his wife. But he’s plainly a screw-up with no job and no design for living. And then Mom marries one of her professors, Bill (Marco Perella), and it’s on to the next phase, the next chapter.

You don’t see Coltrane acting, only behaving, re-acting, his hair and face and body changing but his consciousness constant. What’s happening on the outside reflects some of what’s inside, but not all. It’s not a one-to-one correspondence. Boyhood is more open than that, more amorphous. Professor Bill is a scary alcoholic, but the fear doesn’t come all at once. Feelings are usually one or two steps behind events. Later on, Linklater tips his hand a bit when Mom — now a professor herself — lectures on Bowlby and Attachment Theory and we’re probably meant to wonder, “What part of Mason is the upshot of free will and what part a consequence of ruptures and bad parenting?” He’s obviously working on that problem himself, trying to figure out what’s everybody and what’s uniquely him. Parents lecture him, teachers lecture him, but Mason grows more inward, more out of reach to grown-ups. And then, when he’s a senior in high school, he meets a girl and begins — of course! — to find his tongue. That part’s genetically programmed.

Linklater has always been prone to using time as a character. It’s in the titles of his Before trilogy, featuring actors playing the same characters at different periods of their lives. In Before Sunrise (1995), twentysomethings Hawke and Julie Delpy meet on a train and talk. In Before Sunset, made nine years later, they meet again and talk. Nine years after that came Before Midnight, in which they’re married with kids and not talking as much — until halfway through, when they finally hash things out. They have to reconnect in each film — and fast, because the clock is ticking toward sunrise, sunset, midnight. I love the Before films, but they’re … talky. Linklater is so literal about time that you never feel he’s using the full, transcendent resources of cinema.

He does in Boyhood. You can’t call his touch glancing — scene by scene, he’s tightly centered — but he covers a lot of ground. You can feel the impact of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq via Mom’s next boyfriend, whose ideals and actions seem dangerously far apart. Dad moves to Austin, he’s rah-rah Obama, and then he marries into a good Texas family of God and guns and is suddenly stable, not so gung-ho change anymore. CDs become iPods and iPods become iPhones and Mason muses about Facebook, about a generation stuck in “an in-between state, not experiencing anything.” His worldview is evolving before our eyes.

We can quibble with small stuff in Boyhood. Supporting performances are variable, the sister drops out as a dramatic character … I could go on. But the cumulative power is tremendous. Arquette taps into her anger — the anger, I suspect, of an aging actress in this culture — and has never been so vivid. Hawke smoothes out Dad’s hairpin psychological turns by having the character comment on them, as if narrating his life for his son. Living with Mason and his parents over time you feel an intimacy, an empathy, a shared stake. I’m not saying Boyhood is the greatest film I’ve ever seen, but I’m thinking there’s my life before I saw it and my life now, and it’s different; I know movies can do something that just last week I didn’t. They can make time visible.

*This article appears in the July 14, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.

Photo: IFC