The business of childhood is the business of waiting: waiting for Christmas, waiting for school to let out, waiting to be old enough to stay up past nine. No other movie I can think of better captures the wistfulness of those days full of waiting than Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, an ambitious and clever undertaking that could easily have turned into a filmmaking disaster. Instead, Linklater ends up with a quiet stunner of a movie that yields to time rather than try to bend it to its will. Boyhood had the curious effect of making me feel lost, uneasy, a little alone in the inexorable march forward — and also totally, emphatically alive.
Linklater began filming Boyhood in the summer of 2002, planning to follow one character from age 6 to 18: As Mason, a small-town Texas kid being raised by a single mom, Linklater cast an unknown 7-year-old named Ellar Coltrane, a thoughtful-looking lad with hair that keeps skewing in the direction of a punky Dennis the Menace cowlick. Linklater assembled his cast and crew for a few weeks every year — you could call it a 12-year shoot — tracing Mason’s story through childhood and adolescence, culminating in his first day at college. He had no idea what kind of a kid, or man, Coltrane would turn out to be: a gawky preteen or one of those rare confident, princely ones? At what point would Coltrane’s voice change? How tall would he get?
Over the course of Boyhood’s nearly three hours, Mason grows up before our eyes, in what can feel something like real time. One minute he’s giggling with a friend over the brassiere pages of a mail-order catalogue. (Notably, it’s from Spiegel or JCPenney, not Victoria’s Secret, a reminder of the time when boys felt exceedingly fortunate to see live models in those workaday, white Cross Your Heart numbers.) The next, he’s tangled in conversation with the high school girlfriend (Zoe Graham) who’s just broken up with him, trying to understand exactly what he did wrong, unable to see that he did nothing wrong. He’s getting his first taste, and surely not his last, of the careless barbarism of love. Mason’s confused suffering has a you-are-there immediacy. In moments like these, he doesn’t seem like a fictional character; he feels like a refracted version of us.
The people around Mason change, too: His mother (Patricia Arquette) becomes slightly thicker around the middle, though her snaggletooth, vaguely careworn smile simultaneously becomes more radiant. His sometime-absentee father (Ethan Hawke) doesn’t change much physically, though bits of his boyishly optimistic aura fall away through the years. His older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), starts out as a bossy mite — an enthusiastic Britney Spears impersonator — and grows into a self-possessed young woman wending her way toward the end of college and the beginning of real adulthood. As kids, Mason and Samantha observe the behavior of their separated parents like junior scientists of humanity: At one point their dad drops them off after an outing (they go bowling and eat forbidden food), and they watch from an upstairs window as their parents argue outside. “Think he’ll spend the night?” Mason asks hopefully. They barely know what “spending the night” means, but they know enough to see it as a way of securing the life they want, or recementing the life they had before their parents split up. It’s a kids-eye-view of marriage so sharp it cuts through you.
Linklater recently told The New York Times that as he was making the film, “People would ask, ‘So what happens?’ ” He’d have to answer, “Not much.” That’s true, and it’s not. Working with two cinematographers, Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, and editor Sandra Adair, Linklater connects the experiences of Mason’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood so seamlessly that we barely notice the joins. We see Mason and a bunch of other kids eagerly queuing up, in costume, for a new Harry Potter book, the kind of generation-specific cultural event that the senior citizens of 2072 will remember with great fondness. Later, his mom remarries, a bullying drunk (the first of two) who forces Mason to get a military-style buzz cut, the sort of thing that’s adorable on kids younger than 6 but just looks wrong on a rapidly sprouting 9-year-old. Before we know it — and before his parents know it, because that’s just how it goes — Mason has become a lanky, serious kid with an artistic bent and an ear gauge. He’s given to philosophical ramblings about not wanting to be a slave to a computer or cellphone screen.
By this point, the still-boyish (and rather tall) Coltrane has settled so deeply into the role of Mason that it hardly seems like a role at all. You’re likely to forget you’re watching an actor, which is the whole point. Coltrane’s Mason is a quiet and observant young man, and because we’ve been watching him all this time, we know how he got there. In one of the movie’s simplest and most affecting moments, Linklater’s camera takes the measure of a dead bird splayed on the ground. We’re seeing it through the very young Mason’s eyes, and even if his curiosity is partly a snakes-and-snails-and–puppy dog’s tails sort of thing, it also suggests an awareness that nothing lasts forever — not even childhood, which seems to stretch on forever when you’re in the middle of it.
Linklater, once something of a wunderkind and now a respected filmmaker at midcareer, has made so many different types of movies (and so many good ones) that he’s hard to pin down. At his best — as with, for example, the trio of pictures that began with the rapturous Before Sunrise — he’s a transcendent poet of everyday stuff. With Boyhood, which will stand among his finest work, he’s given us a cinema verité illusion of the endless days and nights of growing up, like a time-lapse movie of a flower opening up. It just so happens that this flower is a man.