Longitudinal studies in film can be really fascinating experiments to view. The go-to reference for this type of project is the Up Series, a collection of documentaries in which director Michael Apted checks in with the same group of Brits every seven years to see how their lives have changed. It began as a look at the effect of class differences on the ways children socialize, but has since become a fascinating document of humanity in real-time. American auteur Richard Linklater has embraced this concept with his Before trilogy of films, which star Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke as a couple being glimpsed in nine-year intervals. Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood, takes the lessons of both the Up Series and the Before trilogy to show this kind of grand maturation in a singular piece of art.
Linklater shot Boyhood over a twelve year period, during which star Ellar Coltrane transitioned from a young boy into a young man. He plays Mason, a bright Texas kid already in the throes of ennui that often characterize Linklater’s protagonists. Between a harried mother (Patricia Arquette), a mostly-absent-but-well-meaning father (Ethan Hawke), and an eye-rolling older sister (Lorelei Linklater), Mason struggles to find the motivation to do anything besides grow up. But he does just that very well.
Linklater shot with his primary actors for a few weeks every year, so the viewer really does see how Coltrane (and Lorelei Linklater and Hawke and Arquette) change over the years. You could call it a “gimmick” – and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong – but Linklater’s long-con conceit gives the movie what little structure it has.
There’s no real plot or character arc in Boyhood, but I would say this is probably true of the average adolescent. Linklater isn’t looking to make a statement here. In fact, at one point Mason asks his father “What’s the point?” The question is in reference to love, but I wouldn’t fault anyone for putting that question to Linklater regarding his movie. I think Linklater, in turn, would ask that viewer the same question, but in reference to life.
That question – what’s the point? – is kind of central to a lot of Linklater’s films. And even if his characters aren’t asking it, at the very least Linklater seems to ask it for them. The two main characters in Dazed and Confused – Jason London’s Randall and Wiley Wiggins’s Mitch – find themselves questioning the social structures they’ve unwittingly gotten wrapped up in. Jesse (Hawke) and Celine (Delpy) from the Before trilogy, on the other hand, aren’t looking for answers, but rather Linklater does – attempting to find a greater meaning or resonance in their seemingly mundane relationship.
Hawke’s father character in Boyhood can’t really answer his son’s question satisfactorily. It will be left up to Mason to find meaning in life. But at the very least, Linklater has found meaning in his experiment, showcasing how people can change (and not change) over time.
Boyhood has some moments of nostalgia porn that can be a little distracting, but they are paired with some very serendipitous moments of pure spontaneity. There are a few magical moments in the film where it really feels like Linklater and editor Sandra Adair had thousands of hours of footage from this kid’s life and chose the perfect moments to compose the film. Perhaps the perfect moments chose them, much in the way that the moment seizes us, rather than the other way around.
I’m still sitting with Boyhood. It’s not a perfect movie (some of the acting is laughable at times, and Hawke’s bad-dad is the perfect bad-dad – he even knows he’s a bad-dad), but – much like the Up Series – it manages to say a lot about human nature without ever resorting to saying anything about it at all. A definite recommend, as long as you can get past the 164 minute runtime. That’s just the nature of such an ambitious project. You won’t feel it, I promise.