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Boyhood, filmed with the same actors over 12 years, is a slow-motion miracle

Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

In John Crowley's beautifully involving novel Little, Big, a young woman in love goes to visit a talking fish who may or may not be an elderly relative transformed into a trout by fairies. (The book resists easy categorization, but is most easily defined as a fantasy.) She, caught up in love, tells the old fish that she must be married soon, for "Life is short." No, avows the fish, in a "voice thick with tears." Life is long. Too long.

It would be easy to reduce writer/director Richard Linklater's mesmerizing Boyhood to the story of its creation. Filmed over the course of 12 years, Linklater used the project to chart the growth of a young man named Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who begins the film as a young child and ends it as an 18-year-old on the cusp of college. Along the way, his growth is juxtaposed with that of his separated parents and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Friends, step-siblings, and mentors come and go. The nucleus of family, bound together by something aching and primal, remains.

But Boyhood is about more than the circumstances of its production. It succeeds so thoroughly because it keeps both halves of that Little, Big conversation in its head. Mason's life seems to pass very slowly to him, an endless collection of moments strung together like charms on a bracelet. And the film, which runs nearly three hours, seems to reflect this, except for the simple fact that watching someone grow up in front of your very eyes on screen underlines just how quickly time can pass when you're not paying attention. Mason's journey, the journey that every human being must embark upon, becomes a kind of slow-motion miracle. Film, by its very nature, is meant to capture nuggets of time, but Boyhood is all forward momentum and growth. The weight it attains in its last hour is no accident. It's the weight of existence itself.

A Long Series of Cycles

Though Boyhood is a linear film by design, it doesn't particularly have a plot. The manner in which it was created would preclude such a thing. Instead, what it has are a long series of cycles. Mason's father (Ethan Hawke), in and out of his life, turns up for a few days, then leaves all over again, disappointing his kids. Mason's mother (Patricia Arquette) finds herself attracted to yet another man who proves a jerk. (For a film called Boyhood, Mason is not given much in the way of stellar male role models.) The sheen of nebulous "responsibility" hangs over Mason – sometimes literally, when the word pops up in posters hung on school hallway walls – but the boy turns away from the expected path of a good Texan youth to follow his own yearnings. He's dreamy but thoughtful, loving but temperamental. He is, in other words, a pretty typical kid.

Linklater surrounds him with the ephemera of a nation marching from 2002 to 2013. The Harry Potter novels become a touchstone, as does the relentless progression of technology, from brightly colored iMacs to iPods to flip phones to smart phones. At one point, Mason and his dad agree there should be no more Star Wars films after the prequels, an excellent joke on the upcoming films made even more amusing by the fact that no one involved could have known more were coming when the scene was filmed in 2008. Bush gives way to Obama. Coldplay's "Yellow" becomes Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy" becomes an Arcade Fire track over the closing credits. Mason's parents remarry and re-divorce. Everything changes in time-lapse.

The best thing about Boyhood is how Linklater approximates the way that our own points of view shift and mature as we grow older. Every scene here is a perfectly crystallized memory, the kind of thing that a child's mind will latch onto and remember in intricate detail going forward. But as the film goes on, the scenes get longer and more detailed, and Mason is better able to understand the perspectives of people other than himself.

This can be charted in his relationship with three of his mother's significant others. The first is glimpsed only briefly, his argument with Mason's mom seen through a barely closed door. The second is a tyrannical monster, someone Mason can't fight back against yet. (This sequence threatens to destroy the film's carefully built texture until it becomes apparent what Linklater is doing.) And the third is simply a man disappointed in his own life and taking it out on others around him. Yet the only way Mason can appreciate this and understand what's happening is to grow older and experience some of that disappointment himself.

Shifting Perspectives

Adulthood, in Linklater's vision, is less about an age or even a level of responsibility achieved; it's about being able to look outside of oneself and realize that, say, your friends and parents are people, too, rather than just supporting players in your own story. For Mason (and Samantha, who serves as a secondary protagonist throughout), life is less about checking off arbitrary boxes and more about coming to a point where the surrounding view is clear enough to see things with clarity and grace. And then that point is passed, and the climb resumes.

Linklater, whose most lasting contribution to American cinema will likely be the Before trilogy (three films, beginning with Before Sunrise, starring Hawke and Julie Delpy as a couple at different stages in their relationship in each film), has always loved playing with time and charting relationships over the years, or even the seconds. (What is Dazed and Confused but a slow-motion version of everything the director has attempted with his films that span decades?) Yet his understanding of time is intricately connected to being able to slice out particular moments that stand in for entireties. His career is one of synecdoches, lined up artfully next to each other in ways that speak to the deeper currents inside all of us.

Wisely, then, he largely abandons any attempts to force a narrative on Boyhood, which he seems to be doing in the film's midsection. Instead, he puts his trust in echoes chasing themselves between past and present, both visual and in the dialogue, and in the belief that growth and change are possible. Mason's mother starts out living in a tiny apartment with two kids, but she goes back to college and slowly achieves her dreams. His father goes from being the deadbeat philosopher of the film's early sections to someone with more stability – but a continued ability to disappoint his kids. (Both Arquette and Hawke act as bedrock the film would crumble without. They're marvelous.) And both Mason and Samantha slowly solidify as people as kids become teens become adults.

Does all of this mean anything? Not any more than any person's journey toward adulthood will mean anything. Yet late in the film, Mason has a conversation with his mother that opens up a chasm beneath both of them, the chasm of having too much time and not enough of it, a gap in both of their lives that a decade has disappeared into. It can be murderously difficult to find a way to make the specific universal, but Linklater and his cast manage the task by finding the way that this very specific life is just like everybody else's. We are all different, yet all the same, caught between two twin poles. Life is short. Life is long. Too long.

Written and directed by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke
Rated: R
Running time: 2 hours, 46 minutes
Boyhood opens in New York and Los Angeles this weekend and will expand in subsequent weekends.