Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is a coming-of-age story about ordinary people, filmed using a remarkable technique: it took 12 years to complete the movie, with a few scenes filmed every year using the same cast. The main character, a boy named Mason played by Ellar Coltrane, is six years old at the beginning of the film. He’s an eighteen-year-old college student at the end, but it’s still the same actor. His sister Samantha, played by the director’s daughter Lorelei, ages the same way.
It’s a powerful technique, far more than a mere gimmick. It’s not likely to be repeated any time soon, since it was a huge risk for the studio to gamble on contracting the same actors (including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke playing their divorced parents) over such an enormous period of time, the production kept secret for years. Time slips by in surprising bursts as the movie progresses, without any title cards, fades to black, swelling music, or other cues. One minute you’re watching teenage Mason’s first magical evening with the girl who has become the love of his life; then you’re seeing their final painful conversation a year later, months after they broke up. Once the kids have aged enough to make the passage of time between scenes less obvious, it really keeps the audience on their toes.
It’s a long movie, clocking in at almost three hours – an epic “Lord of the Rings”-sized saga about a divorced mom raising her kids in Texas, without much in the way of melodrama, save for some harrowing moments with an abusive second husband. The narrative focus is heavily, but not exclusively, placed on Mason, although his mother’s tragic tale is perhaps even more affecting, unfolding in the background and presented to us in small doses when her life choices alter her children’s fate. The aging of the young actors is a spectacular time-lapse special effect, but Arquette deserves special appreciation for putting so much time and effort into this unusual project, and creating a memorable character in such an understated way.
The time-lapse filming technique helps Linklater make some interesting observations about the way years flow by differently for children and adults; epochs of Mason’s life are passing while his parents try to keep up on which “Harry Potter” movie is coming to theaters next. The disjointed, episodic narrative also provides a good simulation of the haphazard way we tuck certain memories away in our mental treasure chests. Sometimes the days we remember forever aren’t the days that seemed terribly significant at the time. The true end of a relationship might not be the last time you see the other person. Certain events might stick with you, even as they slip from the collective memory of your family. People can change a lot over the course of a year or two, making the juxtaposition between first meeting and final farewell jarring, when those two scenes play out back-to-back.
Leaving the twelve-year filming process aside, “Boyhood” is also a notable snapshot of the state of family life in the new century. Many of these scenes will be painfully familiar to children of the divorce culture. The children, especially young boys, are often looking for something very different than what Mom is seeking when it comes to bringing a new man into the family. Male culture is different, too. The expectations of society are different. Some good paternal advice understandably goes right past Mason, because it’s delivered badly by jackass men in moments of anger or irritation. His boyhood is not what the people of the previous generation wanted for their children. It’s anyone’s guess what many of the kids in Mason’s generation will want for theirs.
“Boyhood” is most likely to hold your attention over its long running time if you recognize elements of the story from your own life, or the stories of people you know. It really is different because of the unusual production method – it wouldn’t have worked as well if three or four sets of actors had been swapped in for the children as they aged, and even Arquette and Hawke play this differently than any other role they’ve undertaken; it must have been a fascinating challenge to briefly return to these characters briefly every year over the span of a decade. There are some things that all the special-effects technology in Hollywood still cannot simulate.