The first section of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood features a brief, seemingly throwaway scene where little Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is helping his mom clean up the home they’re leaving. She directs him to the doorway, where small marks track the growth of Mason and his sister through the years they’ve lived there. When I first saw the film at Sundance, this stuck out as a key image: Linklater seems to be doing the same with this quietly tremendous picture (shot in bits and pieces over a dozen years, tracking its protagonist from age six to 18), creating a cinematic time capsule, a narrative riff on Michael Apted’s acclaimed Up documentaries. But upon further investigation, Boyhood reveals itself as something deeper, more noteworthy and ambitious than even its remarkable production would suggest, for Linklater has given us nothing less than a cinematic approximation of human memory.
As with the best of Linklater’s work — and, it must be noted, with our own recollections — there isn’t much in the way of an intensely focused plot. It’s a film of moments, modestly captured in an unfussy, straight-ahead style, like flipping through an old photo album. When we meet Mason, he’s a pretty normal six-year-old kid: he daydreams, he plays video games, he rides his bike with his friends. He and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) live with their single mother (Patricia Arquette); their father (Ethan Hawke) shows up every once in a while to play daddy, give them gifts, and disappear again. As the years pass, there are moves and career changes. Stepfathers and father’s girlfriends drift in and out of view. Hobbies are adopted and abandoned. Awkward phases and bad haircuts are weathered. Girls and beer and weed become priorities. And as Mason’s voice deepens and his body stretches, we see the boy become a man, all the while recognizing who he was in who he has become.
Boyhood doesn’t position itself as a complete chronicle of these years, or these characters. Linklater situates the film in such a way that we’re only privy to Mason’s point of view, and we observe the characters and events in his periphery only as he does; when his stepfather makes a stop at the liquor store, a moment that will gradually reveal its connection to a rather important character trait, his actions are less important than the bubblegum-blowing competition between Mason and his stepbrother in the back seat. Mason’s story is seen entirely from his perspective, without a single scene where he’s absent; in fact, when Mom and Dad (who are seldom referred to by their given names) go outside to argue, the camera stays firmly inside the home, watching them through the window with their children.
The film certainly works as the time capsule most critics are reading it as; over the dozen years of the narrative, there are shifts in technology (most clearly seen in the two most important areas for a young man: how he plays video games, and how he looks at naked girls), there are popular songs, there is the increasing gravelliness of Ethan Hawke’s voice, there are little timestamps to help us piece together where we’ve landed (a mention of the Bush/Kerry election, a Harry Potter book release party, that Funny or Die “Landlord” video on a computer screen). But what’s most surprising about the film, considering how its extended shooting period has dominated publicity materials, is how Linklater resists the urge to make a big deal about it onscreen. There are no obtrusive “YEAR ONE” or “2002” titles; there are no obvious markers. It just… unfolds.
And it often does so in unexpected ways, which is perhaps the key to understanding Linklater’s approach to the material. Late in the film, in her best scene, Arquette characterizes parenthood as “this series of milestones” (“You know what’s next?” she insists. “It’s my funeral!”), but Boyhood doesn’t dramatize these years in Mason’s life like that. These years — in which we’re forming the early memories that shape much of our personality — aren’t, as we experience them here, a series of capital-E Events. For example, the film jumps from one of Arquette’s professors asking her out to the happy couple returning from their honeymoon. Their wedding is skipped outright — yet Linklater dramatizes every detail of that stepfather forcing Mason to get an awful buzzed haircut, and the heart-wrenching clarity of his classmates giggling at the boy when he goes to school the next day.
Their eventual breakup is a key part of the film, as it would be in Mason’s memory, because it is a harrowing, dramatic event. But a later divorce is barely mentioned; the guy is there in one scene, gone in the next (just as he initially appeared, again without a rice-throwing wedding ceremony scene). Sometimes these things happen, and they’re not a big deal. When Mason graduates from high school, the event is not shown; we catch up with him after, at the family-and-friends party, and that’s about right, since he’d barely remember the ceremony proper (they all look and sound the same, after all).
The school years, as they’re happening, seem so terribly precise and bracing; every heartbreak, every fight, every embarrassment, every grounding imbued with an end-of-the-world intensity that seems as if it will never end. But eventually, it all falls away, and as time passes, as we get further from those grade schools and abandoned homes and former friends and would-be father and mother figures, it all begins to blur, with only the odd half-remembered moment standing in for an entire experience or an entire relationship, scored by a song that must have been playing somewhere, because it was playing everywhere that year. Boyhood knows that feeling, of childhood memories falling away in the face of college, of adulthood, of the future — and walks through them, without hurrying, just one more time.