They Grow Up So Fast

(USA, 165 min.)
Written and directed by Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
Patricia Arquette (Olivia) and Ellar Coltrane (Mason) in Boyhood.
Photo Credit: Matt Lankes. Courtesy of IFC Films.

It's so weird to hear “Soulja Boy” serve as a time stamp in a period piece. “2008 as a time piece? That can't be right,” one might respond. Richard Linklater's contemporary time capsule Boyhood, however, remains acutely aware of time with each second of the story that passes. The soundtrack itself is like a watch marking intervals of time with greatest his as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grows up from being a little kid riding his bike to the tune of Sheryl Crowe's “Soak Up the Sun” to a school age boy learning to be cool to the grove of “Soulja Boy.” When the Arcade Fire's The Suburbs marks time, however, then one really feels old as Mason readies himself for college. They grow up so fast, don't they?

If the soundtrack of Boyhood makes the experience feel as if it unfolds in real time, then Linklater's experiment is indeed a success. Boyhood, shot over a twelve-year time span with the same actors developing their characters across a dozen years, is unlike any film that’s come before. One watches young Mason grow up and evolve both physically and spiritually, and one sees his relationship with his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) and sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), develop over time. Both Mason and Coltrane show considerable development as Boyhood progress, and Linklater, at the very least, captures an incredible maturation of art and life.

It takes a while to settle in to the conceit of Boyhood, but the film’s awareness of time never feels like a gimmick. Instead, as the film peeks into Mason’s life every now and then during the twelve-years of story time, Boyhood’s ability to convey the passage of time speaks to the power of lived experience. The episodic nature of the film smartly reflects one’s own tendency to reflect upon life not as a whole, but as a series of life-defining moments. Linklater presents various significant episodes of Mason’s life, such as a move, a new stepfather, a bad haircut, a camping trip, and a first kiss. Boyhood is a series of cinematic snapshots spliced together in a thrillingly intelligent mediation upon the seemingly ephemeral experiences of childhood and adolescence.

The success lies strongly in the growth of the performers as they grow with their characters and inject their lives with their own vicissitudes on life’s path during the off-season between Boyhood shoots. Little marks the passage of time in Boyhood besides the soundtrack and the physical and emotional changes of the characters. Linklater begins Boyhood mostly by framing Mason as a prop within a greater composition. The cinematography by Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly looks at Mason with an inquisitive eye during his formative years. Mason plays in the dirt in the side yard of the house and Linklater’s direction asks Coltrane, then six years old, to do little more than sit. The camera recreates the child’s interiority as Boyhood opens with a meditative and observational air. It’s a smart choice, since Coltrane displays little dramatic strength in the film’s first few scenes. The early moments of Boyhood rely heavily on creating Mason’s surroundings and relationships, especially that with his mother, Olivia (a fabulous Arquette), who doesn’t have much of a handle on her own role as a parent when Mason’s story begins.

 There is, however, a delight in seeing Coltrane gradually come into his own as Boyhood progresses. The actor who merely serves as a reaction shot during the elementary years grows into a smart young man who infuses his performance with his own experience. Furthermore, Coltrane’s comfort with Mason is especially intriguing to watch since the actor and character essentially define each other as they age: one is tied to the other during this project that runs from Mason and Coltrane’s sixth birthday to his freshman year at college. Boyhood shows an actor merging with the skin of his character and vice versa, and the arc of Coltrane’s performance energetically testifies to the fact that a great performance is one that reflects upon life and transforms it into a representational feat.

If Boyhood lovingly conveys the growth of a child into a young man, though, it’s doubly powerful for its glimpse into the experience of motherhood. Even more moving and stirring than Coltrane’s interpretation of Mason’s life is Patricia Arquette’s heartfelt journey as Olivia. Arquette’s performance is arguably the heart of Boyhood as the film invites her to be the guide/emotional blanket during the first act as much of the film centres on her coming into her own as a mother, herself quite young and unsure of her place in the world. Olivia, like Mason, experiences a series of tumultuous moments, such as the escape of an abusive marriage or the turning point of seeing her youngest child leave the nest and transition into adulthood. Arquette’s final scene, in which Olivia releases Mason into the wild, is Boyhood’s defining moment. Olivia expresses the mountain of emotions that Boyhood builds in its twelve-year arc. The end of motherhood, this stage of Olivia’s life, is a sincerely moving experience that puts one’s own memory of boyhood in a new perspective as one appreciates all the effort a parent makes in raising her child for the moment he leaves the home. Arquette owns the film as Boyhood becomes a snapshot into this chapter of Olivia’s life just as much as it is a snapshot of Mason’s. It’s an award-calibre performance.

Hawke also makes a strong impression in the smaller role as Mason’s father. Mason Sr. is mostly absent when Boyhood begins and his legal relationship with Mason restricts his role to every other weekend. Hawke therefore gets more fun time with the kids—bowling, camping, and the like—while Arquette gets a juicier struggle. Hawke gets a fine arc to Mason, though, for Mason’s father takes a different course than Olivia does and settles into a more conventional role while Olivia forges her own path and grows up alongside her kids. The absence of a father is nevertheless a poignant element to Boyhood, for Olivia throws herself into a series of toxic relationships as she scuffles with her own independence and self-worth. The authenticity of Boyhood’s characters rings in every relationship, though, and each episode of family drama feels wholly true to life.

Linklater is surely no stranger to playing with temporality, though, for the release of Boyhood comes hot on the heels of the third installment of the Before trilogy, which ended last year with Before Midnight following 2004’s Before Sunset and 1995’s Before Sunrise. The trilogy shows the arc of the romance between Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Celine (Julie Delpy) in an ingeniously time-conscious form akin to the twelve-year span of Boyhood, although the three Before films revisit the lovers in separate films during a chapter in the lives during nine-year intervals. The use of time in Boyhood, while a much different experience, has a different effectiveness than it does in the Before films, since the glimpses into Jesse and Celine’s romance creates unique memories and emotional connections to the characters that last over time. Take, for example, the experience of reliving Jesse and Celine’s relationship in the years between the sweetly beautiful moment when Celine teases, “Baby, you are gonna miss that train,” as love sees its fruition in Before Sunset and then transforms into the George and Martha show as Jesse and Celine bicker until the sun goes down in Before Midnight. Boyhood deftly extends fleeting memories into the present tense, but one could argue that Linklater more powerfully conveys the growth of characters over time—both real and cinematic—in the Before trilogy since the film experience of the Before films is intimately linked to a relationship that the viewer builds over several years. A viewer undoubtedly builds a relationship to Mason and Olivia in Boyhood, though, so it’s admittedly a moot point if one doesn’t frame it within the context of the emotional rollercoaster one has undergone with Jesse and Celine.

Nevertheless, Boyhood is truly remarkable. The sheer commitment to the project is evident in the performances and direction alike. Boyhood thrills through the newness and ingenuity of the film, and for how tangibly the experiment with time shapes, informs, and enriches the film.

Rating: ★★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★★)

Boyhood screens in Ottawa at The ByTowne until August 10.
It also screens at SilverCity Gloucester.

What did you think of Boyhood?