Richard Linklater’s Boyhood
David Liu | 16 July 2014
A short list of directors who produced masterpieces near or after the half-century mark of their lives might look something like this:
Vittorio De Sica — Bicycle Thieves (47) and Umberto D. (51)
Elia Kazan — America, America (54)
Krzysztof Kieslowski — The Decalogue (48), Three Colors (52)
Sergio Leone — Once Upon a Time in America (55)
Yasujiro Ozu — Tokyo Story (50)
Martin Scorsese — Goodfellas (47), The Age of Innocence (51)
Edward Yang — Yi Yi: A One and a Two (52)
Richard Linklater is 53, and Boyhood feels like his magnum opus. Shot in just 39 days over a twelve-year span, its production spans two presidential administrations, two wars, one recession, seven Harry Potter films, the resurgence of Apple and the emergence of Facebook. Four principal actors anchor the cast from beginning to end — Ellar Coltrane as the protagonist, Lorelei Linklater as his sister, Patricia Arquette as his mother, Ethan Hawke as his father. Boyhood is a work of staggering ambition, but instead of dream layers or collapsing space stations, its vision crystallizes in familiar places: faces, conversations, people sitting together, the daily minutiae of life lived.
Played by Coltrane beginning in the first grade, Mason Jr. is an ordinary boy growing up in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. His parents Mason Sr. and Olivia have separated, and he shares a bunk bed with his sister Samantha, who belts Britney Spears songs to annoy him. The mother decides to go back to school, prompting the father to commit himself to weekend visits. Life is told in quick vignettes and occasional jump cuts to mirror the fragmented memories of childhood. The first hour of the film unfolds like a gentle breeze before life gets more complicated. Children grow in age and stature. Adults grow older but not necessarily wiser. Scenes build in duration and intensity, from hilarious conversations in bowling alleys to long takes of individuals walking and chatting with each other.
Music tells a story too. From Coldplay and Arcade Fire to Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney, the opening chords of songs anticipate new years, new chapters, new feelings. There’s Soulja Boy announcing the swagger of adolescence, a charming folk serenade from a family of four to the in-laws, Gotye and Gnarls Barkley setting the mood for bars and pool halls. Curated from the memories of millennials and Generation Xers, the soundtrack for the film is tailor-made for our times, a coming-of-age Spotify souvenir. Like Scorsese before him, Linklater understands how pop music, used at the right moments, can take on a life of its own beyond the frame.
The script, written by Linklater and developed organically over the years, exemplifies the rare successful marriage between autobiography and period study. More than just an accumulation of the director’s memories and actors’ experiences, Boyhood presents an organic time lapse of what it’s like to laugh, cry, love and lose in 21st century America. Although much has been made of its focus on the perspectives of children, adults are equally omnipresent in Boyhood. Just as September 11 pushed the reset button on a new century, so too do the people of Boyhood strive to recalibrate the meaning of life by absorbing new experiences. Characters enter and exit without fanfare, leaving us to wonder. Moments we do not see become as powerful as moments captured.
Surely this is the most extraordinary cinematic coming-of-age since Antoine Doinel’s. That character, a creation and alter-ego of French New Wave director François Truffaut, began his journey toward adulthood in The 400 Blows — considered by many to be the medium’s seminal entry on childhood. With his lead actor Jean-Pierre Leaud, Truffaut went on to make four more films charting Antoine’s adult life. Five years after directing the final entry in the series, Love on the Run, Truffaut passed away prematurely at 52. One wonders how many more could have materialized.
Richard Linklater is 53, one of the great American directors of our time, and his Boyhood contains just as much perception and empathy as Truffaut’s best films. By distilling a half-century of life in the cinema into twelve years in the life of a boy, he builds a world and shares all of it with us.
Here in my place and time
And here in my own skin
I can finally begin
Let the century pass me by…
— Arcade Fire, “Deep Blue”
Boyhood is playing in limited release in Los Angeles (ArcLight Hollywood, The Landmark) and New York City (IFC Center, Lincoln Plaza Cinemas).