Knowing that “Boyhood” was shot with the same key cast over a dozen years by Richard Linklater and that it’s nearly three hours long gives you pause. Oh-oh, you think, an epic movie about Serious Stuff along the lines of Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.”
So how wonderful to encounter an absolutely brilliant film about the stuff of day-to-day life, about how we all grow up amid incidents big and small but without high drama or certainly the melodrama that movies concoct. This is the most lived-in film ever made. Literally.
As you track the changing episodes of these lives on screen — the marital spats, parent-children confrontations, changes in school, teenagers acting out, parents confronted by an empty nest and even the banalities of family life — nothing huge or dramatic seems to be happening. But cumulatively the impact of “Boyhood” is enormous.
Linklater, who wrote and directed, never supercharges any scene. Rather he lets things unfold so normally, even undramatically at times, that you have to remember this is not a documentary. You’re so used to anticipating story twists and unexpected developments, even tragedies, in movie drama that their absence here is tonic.
So among other things, “Boyhood” makes you rethink the whole nature of movies themselves. Big moments that contain natural drama slip by and get forgotten by the characters; meanwhile smaller moments may resonate later. Characters also simply disappear, the way people do in all our lives.
While undoubtedly an inexpensive movie on one level, the risks here were considerable. Linklater started with his frequent collaborator Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette as the central divorced parents of young Ellar Coltrane, who will grow up before our eyes.
The gamble was that all actors would continue to show up in Texas for the yearly or so shoots, that no one dies or becomes somehow unable to continue with these life roles.
But then how could the director guess that Coltrane would not only change into a good looking and thoughtful young man but that he would actually resemble somewhat his movie dad? As someone once remarked, luck is the residue of design.
Linklater introduces “time markers” into the movie so you sort of know where you are in time: The young boy, named Mason after his dad, lines up in costume one midnight to purchase “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” Dad takes him to an Astros game where you see Roger Clemens strike out the visiting Brewers years before any controversy over his doping. Father and son come to a meeting of the minds over “Star Wars,” which both assert really ended with “Return of the Jedi.”
Meanwhile mom, Olivia, keeps making the same mistake in men. You never learn why she divorced Mason Sr., but he does seem like a drifter and a man who doesn’t always focus on immediate problems in his younger days.
The film in a way is misnamed. The focus is on a family, not just a boy and not just his boyhood. You leave him as a young man who has developed a passion for art photography and is experiencing his first days at college.
But you see his sister leaving for college earlier and his dad start a second family and his mom, now a successful professor herself, feeling that loss of family. It’s really Familyhood.
Life itself is on display here. Love, pain and the whole damn thing as another movie title once had it. In one sense, there is no story here; in another, to quote even another movie title, it’s the greatest story ever told.
DPs Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly do remarkable jobs in keeping the cinematography consistently straightforward and unadorned over the 39 days of shooting that covered 12 years. It’s a natural, semi-documentary approach that allows the actors freedom within the frame to truly inhabit it.
(By the way, the film was shot on 35mm right up to the format’s demise.)
How this was written I have no idea but clearly the script was shaped over time whatever the rough conception was originally. Certainly in 2002 Linklater couldn’t have dreamed that his dad character would drag his kids into helping him campaign for Obama in 2008 — in Texas no less!
Linklater goes out of his way to impose nothing on the material but rather let the material, and his boy protagonist, simply grow. In fact, Mason Jr. seems almost a minor character in the early going only to come into his own as he matures, his sister then retreating into the background.
The only points of comparison would be Linklater and Hawke’s own time-lapse series, the two sequels to their 1995 “Before Sunrise” they added nine and 18 years later and the Michael Apted documentary “Up” series that checks in with the same 14 British kids every seven years.
“Boyhood” a film that demands being seen similarly, again and again over time. So see it now and see it in two-three years and then drop in on “Boyhood” a decade later. I’m willing to bet the film will change over time, becoming deeper and more meaningful with each passing year.
Opens: July 11, 2014 (IFC Films)
Production: Detour FilmProduction
Cast: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Marco Perella, Charlie Sexton, Jenni Tooley, Richard Jones, Karen Jones, Zoe Graham
Director/screenwriter: Richard Linklater
Producers: Richard Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland
Executive producers: Jonathan Sehring, John Sloss
Directors of photography: Lee Daniel, Shane Kelly
Production designer: Rodney Becker
Costume designer: Kari Perkins
Editor: Sandra Adair
No rating, 164 minutes