The true star of Richard Linklater’s new movie Boyhood is time. Written and directed by Linklater and filmed in his home city of Houston in spurts over a 12-year period, less a slice of life than the whole cake, it’s groundbreaking in technique yet deceptively modest in approach. Virtually everyone who has seen it has loved it (though some conservatives have qualms). Everyone is basically right. Even if you don’t think you want to see it, and I wasn’t sure, you do.
Like Dazed and Confused, his 1993 cult classic, Boyhood mines the Texas landscape of Linklater’s youth. The film gods certainly blessed Linklater with his lead actor. Ellar Coltrane started filming the role of Mason Jr. at the age of seven. Before our eyes, Mason grows up under an older sister (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei), a shifting series of step-dads, and a rock-like mother (Patricia Arquette). Watching Coltrane, as Mason, evolve from a slightly dramatic child actor to an assured 19-year-old Bieberesque heartthrob is fascinating on several levels, like a dramatized version of a YouTube time-lapse photo collage of kids. But Linklater’s gimmick is not episodic or jarring.
While Boyhood is immersive, it’s not really a character study: We only glimpse Mason Jr.’s interior life as others see him. Yet Linklater has said that Ellar’s developing personality shaped the evolution of the movie. Linklater has tied plenty of knots in his script’s timeline – presidential elections, new school years, Star Wars rumors, the 6th Harry Potter book – making it a fascinating time capsule while also keeping viewers from being lost in the 12-year time span.
Poignant but not sentimental, Boyhood lopes along like life, with all its missed opportunities and sheer happenstance. Devout grandparents, prodding teachers, and school bullies come, and then go. Scenes that feel like foreshadowing fade into ephemera. Only occasionally does the melodrama seem goaded or forced along. You might suspect one drunken temper tantrum too many, but even that just demonstrates that destructive behavior patterns are part of the warp and woof of human existence, obvious only in retrospect.