Twelve years ago, Richard Linklater started production on a movie following the development of a child from the age of seven through the end of his teenage years. If there was ever project that demanded to be informed by the history of its making, “Boyhood” is it. Epic in scope yet unassuming throughout, Linklater’s incredibly involving chronicle marks an unprecedented achievement in fictional storytelling — the closest point of comparison, Michael Apted’s “Up” documentaries, don’t represent the same singularity of vision. Shot over the course of 39 days spread across more than a decade, “Boyhood” is an entirely fluid work that puts the process of maturity under the microscope and analyzes its nuances with remarkable detail.
The key to “Boyhood” lies with the smallness of its story, which revolves around the plight of Texan native Mason (Ellar Coltrane) along with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and their divorced parents, Mason Sr. and Olivia (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette). As we watch this quartet consistently age during the movie’s justifiable 164 minute length, the subtle qualities of change become steadily crystallized. At its center, Mason’s growth allows Coltrane to fully inhabit his character through the accumulation of his experiences and their recurring impact on his expanding awareness. As a child, he and his sister witness their parents’ unruly separation from a limited perspective before getting whisked away by their mother to a new life in Houston.
That shift marks the first of several transitions that find the broken family unit moving from place to place while their desperate mother veers from one ill-fated relationship to another. In between, their free-spirited dad crops up for occasional visits, leading to a sharp contrast between the adults’ meandering lifestyles and their kids’ regular attempts to comprehend the fractured world around them. Alternately sweet and melancholic, “Boyhood” slowly unfurls with an enthralling trajectory, relying on the changes in its characters’ physical appearances to connote the advancing years.
Beyond the inherent intrigue of this structural gimmick, however, “Boyhood” maintains a consistent focus. During Olivia’s second marriage, to her graduate psychology professor Bill (Marco Perella), the children observe a far more upsetting breakup than the preceding one, with Bill growing dangerously moody under the influence of alcoholism. While this chapter constitutes the narrative’s darkest hour, it also plants a seed of understanding that enables an increasingly self-reliant Mason to resist similar oppression from his mother’s third and equally reckless husband. “Boyhood” owes much of its power to this network of cause and effect spread across its plot with fascinating nuances. As his voice deepens and he blossoms into a long-haired, deep-voiced, pot-smoking teen, gains a first love and develops a promising interest in professional photography, Mason embodies the rite of passage indicated by the title.
But “Boyhood” leaves ample room for its supporting characters to define the conditions of Mason’s growth. Lorelei Linklater’s assertiveness makes her character an equal source of interest for the way she quietly remains the family’s backbone. Hawke’s Mason Sr., a freewheeling lefty musician, crops up just frequently enough to offer a rich commentary on the advancing challenges faced by his kids. While their relationship never becomes strained, it’s clear by the movie’s later years that Mason has learned to view his father’s nuggets of wisdom with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Hawke, who undergoes almost as much of a dramatic physical change as Coltrane, provides a nifty counterpoint to the soul-searcher he portrayed in Linklater’s “Before” trilogy: He has muddled passion and politics to spare (in one hilarious sequence presumably shot in 2008, he encourages his kids to nab John McCain flyers off his neighbors lawn; in 2002, he fills their heads with anti-war ideology) but not much to show for it. Among the focused ensemble, only Arquette strains from certain unmistakable one-note aspects in the role of the flimsy, put-upon woman, but eventually gets the chance to show her assertiveness once her children stop being high maintenance.
While continually astute, “Boyhood” gets particularly engrossing during its final third, when Mason starts to pursue his professional interests and contemplate his future in light of the possibilities he has witnessed at home. A central conversation with his girlfriend, during a visit the duo pay to his sister at her college, illustrates his emerging cynicism about the next stages of his life. Even here, however, “Boyhood” leaves room for few more revelations that impact Mason’s thought process. An ideological prequel to the “Before” movies, Linklater’s sprawling approach tracks the evolution of Mason’s intellect. Surrounded by expectations and vaguely worded advice from his confused elders, he finally obtains the ability to operate as a wholly independent thinker willing to push back. Linklater masterfully foregrounds the juxtaposition between Mason’s inquisitive younger self (“There’s no such thing as real magic in the world, right?” asks the 10-year-old) and the college-aged thinker in the closing act who rationalizes his increasing worldview.
Despite keeping its tantalizing premise in constant focus, “Boyhood” does feature the occasional lapses in quality: awkward lines of dialogue and some broadly scripted supporting characters come and go, but they’re generally forgivable in light of the larger tapestry that never wavers in the slightest. Linklater glues together the discombobulated proceedings with distinct ingredients that define each period: changing video game consoles, flip phones, music cues that range from Coldplay and Weezer in earlier scenes to snippets of the recent Daft Punk album. These signposts are helpful for the sake of orientation, but rarely over-pronounced. Instead, the movie constantly sublimates its widening ideas into passing exchanges. “Any dipshit can take pictures,” one of Mason’s teachers tells him when he’s been lapsing on his studies. “It takes a real genius to make art.”
One assumes that Linklater felt similarly when he started “Boyhood,” though the result hardly contains any indications of presumptuousness. Instead, Linklater relishes the small moments that epitomize Mason’s flow of experiences. During a camping trip with his dad clearly shot years ago, the pair have a hilariously prescient exchange about the “Star Wars” franchise and determine it could never accommodate additional movies. Retroactively a sly commentary on the upcoming sequels, the conversation implies that not all ambitious filmmaking must be tethered to commercial intensions. It’s one scene among many rendered insightful by the passage of time surrounding them — the central tenet at the heart of “Boyhood” that makes it Linklater’s shrewdest accomplishment to date, and a de facto celebration of his ongoing commitment to moving forward.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. IFC Films releases “Boyhood” in New York and Los Angeles this Friday ahead of a nationwide expansion.