Best known for his ruminative, often meandering plots (Slacker, the Before trilogy, Waking Life), auteur Richard Linklater tends to seek out truth in the surest way possible, by slowly circling around it and never attempting to claim it. In Boyhood, a film he began shooting 12 years ago and which arrives in theaters today, Linklater takes his longest stroll yet to tell the story of Mason, a middle-class boy in Texas, as he goes from age six to 18. Merely watching promising newcomer Ellar Coltrane (Mason) grow up before your eyes makes this film worth seeing, but potentially even more compelling is watching the familiar faces of Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke (Mason’s divorced parents) age 12 years in just three hours.
Those three hours pass with uncommon ease. That’s partly because Linklater grounds his story of American childhood in temporal landmarks that most everyone, especially people between the ages of 20 and 40, will find remarkably familiar. The pleasingly nostalgic soundtrack serves as probably the best locator in time, featuring songs by Coldplay, Wilco, the Flaming Lips and Arcade Fire, to name a few. Meanwhile, technology evolves from iMacs (aglow with the game Oregon Trail), into iPods, and then into iPhones. Loyal Linklater fans will pick up on numerous references to his other films, inducing even more nostalgia: the liquor store clerk from Dazed and Confused, an eccentric intellectual from Waking Life waxing philosophical to himself at a diner, even a child who looks suspiciously like he might be the spawn of Wiley Wiggins. And in a personal touch, Linklater cast his daughter (Lorelei Linklater) as Samantha, Mason’s sister, who initially seems to outshine Coltrane, before the young actor’s confidence begins to grow along with his body.
Beside the nostalgic winks and nods, Linklater unpretentiously places little truths about life that hit home. Over the course of the film, these little truths start to add up to a much larger truth, one impossible to tell but hard not to feel. And Linklater never tries to make anything seem more real than it is. While the film remains utterly engaging for all 166 minutes you can also plainly see the straightforward contrivance of scene after scene, none of which attempts to dazzle or shock you. Ultimately Linklater’s naturalistic approach highlights what’s most essential to the film: heartfelt honesty.
Everyone who is alive is taking the same walk, sometimes slow and sometimes fast, sometimes left then right, but always, when looked at as a whole, the journey is fundamentally the same. Admirably simple, unique and patient, Boyhood gives you a disarmingly real look at the bigger picture in a way few films can.
Photo courtesy of Everett