There are few witnesses of the human condition – an existence that is often boring, awkward, and trying – quite like Richard Linklater, who can make the quietest and most ordinary compelling in an indefinable way. Since his landmark Dazed and Confused, the ultimate observation of teenage ennui, Linklater has also taken great risks as a filmmaker, which paid off in his most successful works by always touching audiences with character sketches that ring astonishingly true. His latest release Boyhood, which was twelve years in the making, might therefor be considered the ultimate Linklater film – a total risk and daring innovation of the filmmaking process, while remaining as simple and honest as anything he’s ever done.
The film follows the journey of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through his grade-school years, starting as a young boy and culminating with his eventual stumble into college life. Plot points are abundant but relatively insignificant to the propulsion of the film; moving houses, drunk stepdads, Mom’s college journey, weekends with Dad and adolescent love are all momentous at the time but, as in life, are quickly learned from and moved past.
The journey to make the film itself has become the stuff of legend and for good reason; shot over twelve years (from the summer of 2002 to the fall of 2013) with the same cast and characters, growing into new bodies and phases of life, year after year. It was filmed as a collection of short films over time, with the knowledge that they would eventually be stitched together into a complete work. And if that’s a gimmick, it really pays off. Seeing age (and haircuts, and phones, and even the soundtrack) pass by naturally is breathtaking, like flipping through a stranger’s family photo album and having the images come to life before you. Even a passing knowledge of how difficult it is to make film production a reality will let you know that this undertaking is borderline insane, and one that could only be accomplished by a filmmaker with the utmost respect of his collaborators and an unnerving faith in the endurance of the story. It’s said that if Linkater had died during production, Ethan Hawke would have inherited the directing duties so that the project would live on.
The results are bittersweet but brilliant. The effect of seeing lives pass by in a series of checkpoints (a point made literal by Mom Patricia Arquette’s brilliant breakdown at the end of the film) actually makes life itself seem somewhat trite, but the relationships that bind it incredibly powerful.
Take Dad for instance, played earnestly by Ethan Hawke. Dad isn’t always a great dad, and he’s not always there for the kids, but his efforts and intentions are almost always on the right side of care and compassion. The CV of his child rearing doesn’t look great on paper, but we know that his relationship with Mason means the world to him, which ultimately counts more after twelve years (and three hours of film) than all of the individual missteps. At one point he tells a teenage Mason that he’s sold his classic car, and is shocked when Mason tells him – hurt – that he had promised the car to him as a young boy. We don’t see that scene earlier in the film because we don’t need to; there’s no great point about being a Shitty Dad to be made here. Maybe he DID say the car would one day be Mason’s, maybe not? Does it matter, ultimately?
Reductive as it may be, to see a life distilled to its moments reminds us that these moments are the essence of our existence, and in spite of the cliché, we can seize them, or ignore them, or let them drift away, but either way the clock keeps on ticking. In the funniest moment of the film, it’s final minute, Mason attempts a deep thought while tripping with new friends in the desert. He tries to punctuate a point about life being a series of moments to a pretty girl who clearly has taken an interest in him, but it falls flat because he’s built nowhere near the wisdom required for such a retrospective analysis of life itself. But didn’t we all say meaningless shit as stoned kids? It’s so fucking stupid and innocent that as an audience we can do nothing but boil over with joy, remembering all the painfully awkward moments of our own lives with an endearing smile. There’s no need to celebrate. It’s just life.