Late in writer/director Richard Linklater's Boyhood - the finest movie yet by the creator of Dazed & Confused and the Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy - there's a simple scene between a mother and her son. The son, who is either nearing or has just turned 18, is heading to college and is packing a bag in his room; he and his mom talk while she pays bills in the kitchen. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the mother starts weeping. Her son enters the room and nonchalantly asks what's wrong (this is hardly the first time he's seen her cry), and she replies with a litany of romantic, professional, locational, and maternal decisions that we've watched her make over the course of the film. She asks where all that time went. Her son, offering a slight smile of empathy, goes back to his room and continues packing. The mother buries her face in her hands, and says, "I just thought there would be more."
Like so many of them in Linklater's extraordinary achievement, that line is both funny and heartbreaking. Funny because after the mom's lengthy recitation of events - and we're talking some major, life-changing events here, both wonderful and horrible - she wants even more? (The line is also amusing given that, while her youngest is leaving the nest, the 40-year-old's life is hardly over.) But it's also heartbreaking because, after all, who doesn't want more? Do any of us look back on our lives, or at least significant chunks of our lives, and not wonder about roads not traveled, or choices that inevitably led to other choices, or how it all seemed to pass so quickly? It would be easy to say that Boyhood's main character is Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who is featured in every scene and who, through Linklater's singularly successful experiment, we literally watch from first grade to his high-school graduation. But its true protagonist, I think, is time, or rather the passage of time. Like perhaps no other movie I've seen, Boyhood exudes a thrilling, present-tense immediacy that keeps you consistently conscious of on-screen minutes, hours, days, and years slipping by; you're always in the moment, yet simultaneously aware of how ephemeral those moments are. Linklater pulls this off, however, without once making a showy deal of the feat. His film is profound yet never pretentious, hilarious and deeply touching, and it might boast the speediest 165 movie minutes I've ever sat through.
For those who don't know Boyhood's "hook," or why, in certain circles, it's been making such a happy ruckus since its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival, Linklater shot his Texas-based project in three- to four-day increments over a period of 12 years, beginning in 2002, when Coltrane was six. The movie consequently follows Coltrane's Mason, in roughly 15-minute passages, through each of his next 11 years, and we watch the child grow as he deals with, you know, kid stuff: school, parties, baseball, Nintendo, part-time jobs, young love, and the affections/irritations of his divorced mom and dad (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and two-years-older sister (the director's daughter Lorelei Linklater). It's an ingenious conceit for a film, and one made even more so by its refusal to mark the passage of time with title cards reading "2005" or what have you. Instead, we're oftentimes made aware of the years passing through visual and aural signposts: a bit of a Will Ferrell Funny or Die video here, an Obama-Biden lawn sign there. (The sequence that finds Mason and his well-meaning-slacker dad, during a rare day together, planting said signs - and removing the McCain-Palin promotion across the street - is one of the film's most riotous.)
More frequently, though, and far more movingly, we witness the passage of time in Mason himself. During Boyhood's first section, if you could describe this seamless movie as even having "sections," Mason, his mom, and his sister move from their home to a new one in a different town. (Before vacating, in a bit so elegant and thematically rich that it made me instantly well up, we watch as Mason paints over the bedroom doorway markings that have charted his growth over the years.) The family pulls into the driveway, and in the next shot, we're in Mason's bedroom, which is now fully unpacked and typically messy. But wait: Is Mason taller than he was just a second ago? Is his hair longer? You quickly realize that, yes, a whole year has passed from driveway to bedroom, and the shock of that instant - delight at the filmmaking sleight-of-hand, regret at the younger Mason's saga being over, excitement for what might happen to the kid this year - happens every single time the calendar jumps forward.
Occasionally, on a narrative level, these chronological leaps are huge; one particular scene ends with Mason watching his mom chat up her college professor, and in the very next shot, Mason, his sister, and the professor's two kids are swimming in the pool they now share as a blended family. Usually though, as in life, one year simply melts into another with little more than the aging process - and Mom's and Dad's complicated love lives - letting us know that time has moved on. Boyhood is an intensely difficult movie to describe in terms of what it's "about," because while it is, primarily, a coming-of-age story, it bypasses all the traditional coming-of-age incidents we're (cinematically) trained to expect.
There's no standing up to the school bully; no first kiss; no cathartic bravery at the top of the water slide. (Mason's maturation is handled so matter-of-factly, and is so lacking in diagrammed "drama," that I was 30 seconds into a scene before realizing it was the first time we were watching the kid drive.) We're simply spectators, active spectators, on Mason's road to adulthood, and if that sounds in any way boring, it's actually the exact opposite. You love the smart, silly, calm, questioning Mason so much as a six-year-old ("Your teacher tells me you spend all day looking out the window." "Not all day ... .") that your fondness for the kid only expands as the film progresses, and consequently, you find yourself as caught up in his daily minutiae as he is, sometimes even more so. Linklater's latest is exciting because, again like life, it's so thoroughly tied to the promise of an unknown future - the eternal possibility of more. (The movie will be a radically different experience on repeat viewings. Naturally, you can say that about all movies, but Boyhood should initiate an especially fascinating game of connect-the-dots, watching to see what events from Mason's past led to him becoming the 18-year-old we see at the finale.)
Can you even fathom how many different ways this project could have gone wrong, or not happened altogether? If, God forbid, one of the principal actors died or became incapacitated, or if young Coltrane's parents just said "Enough is enough" and pulled him from filming? Or if Coltrane turned into an asshole or, worse, an untalented asshole? But miraculously, it seems that everything that could have gone right with Boyhood did - and I'm including the captured moment in which the Houston Astros' Jason Lane hit a home run right as the camera was pointed at him. (It feels like the film is bursting with such moments, among them the strike that a pre-teen Lerelei rolls while bowling, and the rock that Hawke skips - perfectly - across a pond.) Coltrane is a naturalistic wonder, from his youthful openness when staring at a dead bird to his collegiate charm as a confident, artistic-minded soul with a Peter Dinklage handsomeness. Arquette, Hawke, and Lorelei Linklater are so connected to their roles that, with the aid of the director and the superior editor Sandra Adair, they give wholly realized performances, and not 12 individual ones. And with Linklater's writing as fresh and fluid as you could ever want, the film features no end of scenes that hum with joyous, recognizable life.
Mason's dad trying his best to take part in competing, dovetailing conversations with his son, who's explaining his rock collection, and his daughter, who's telling of her basketball team. Sis bothering her brother with yet another spirited yet off-key rendition of "Oops, I Did It Again." The kids waiting in line for the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter. Mom and son, both drunk and probably a little high, silently agreeing to not attack one another for the lapses. Mason eating a patron's untouched shrimp in his workplace kitchen, and convincing a co-worker to eat one, too. Mason and his girlfriend, in one of the director's signature shots, watching the sun rise, and instinctively holding one another a little tighter as it does. I could go on and on and on, but Boyhood is such a transcendent compilation of found moments - or moments that feel found - that doing so would be both repetitive and unfair. See the film whenever and however you can. And plan on wanting to see it again. I have a feeling that with every new viewing, Richard Linklater's astounding work is just going to keep delivering more.
Author's note: Boyhood is currently playing at Iowa City's downtown FilmScene venue located at 118 East College Street. And as I made my first-ever trek there on Saturday, I can't rave enough about the quality of the screen image and sound, the friendliness of the staff, or how cool it was to be in an audience of film-lovers, all of them adults, who appreciated Linklater's achievement so much that they - and I - applauded at the end. Check it out at ICFilmScene.org. I'll definitely be back. Soon.