Boyhood opens on six-year-old Mason looking up at the sky. The lens rests easy on his face, focusing our attention on a kid who has an obvious curiosity about the world. He’s waiting to be picked up from school, setting up our reflex for routine, and though there isn’t dialogue—or the crutch of interior monologue—you get a sense of the kinds of questions he asks himself. Why do we do the things we do, and where does all this lead? What are we doing here in these bodies, and in these minds? As the camera drifts from Mason’s gaze, his mom (Patricia Arquette) appears, interrupting his fog of existential thought, and he quickly comes back into the body of a little boy who has just begun to wander through this open-ended sphere.
The legend of Boyhood runs deep. Filmed for roughly three days each year over the course of twelve years, the story follows actor Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, from the time he’s dangling in the backseat of his mother’s car until he arrives at his college dorm room. The experience of watching an actor age on screen, year after year, alongside a running narrative, earns the movie a spot in motion picture history. It’s filmmaking as anthropology, an attempt to blur the line between actor and character, between life and art, to look as honestly as possible at the stillness of how we change, or don’t change, as we grow up. The creative scope behind writer-director Richard Linklater’s long-term ambition is impressive. The nucleus of Mason’s orbit is rounded out by his older sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei) and his divorced parents, Olivia and Mason Sr.—the latter a role tailored perfectly for Ethan Hawke as his wise and righteous, if a bit absent, father.
The psychological precedence for the actors working on the film—especially Coltrane, who has spent most of his conscious life splitting thoughts with a character that grew up alongside him—is reason enough to warrant its study for years to come. Watching a decade plus of your most visible growth documented and condensed on screen must intoxicate your frame of reference for most things, and both he and Lorelei Linklater have mentioned in interviews that it was overwhelmingly emotional to watch the movie (they were never shown any pending footage leading up to the finished film). The details within the film ebbed and flowed with Coltrane’s maturation off-screen, which informed Linklater’s pacing of Mason and his family, so there’s a looseness to the time lapse that breathes like it’s unfolding within the contours of a truthful life.
The whole concept was a gamble balanced on the shoulders of a six-year-old who could not have grasped that he was agreeing to a proposition that would last for twice his own existence. There are countless variables that could have derailed the process along the way. What if Ellar had decided after a few years that acting wasn’t for him? Linklater jokes that had one of the principal actors died in the course of completing the project, his first thought would not have revolved around the well-being of his film, but these are the cinematic considerations when taking on such an enormous feat. Everyone committed to it solely in good faith, as binding contracts past seven years are not considered legal, and though anyone could have walked away at any point, there seemed to be a collective understanding among all involved parties that this was a special opportunity to create something worthwhile.
Even the best films about childhood, like Stand By Me, have their limitations, because they focus on a fixed period of adolescence to tell their tale, due in large part to the logistics of filmmaking. Or they require different actors to transition a character through various stages of life, staggering the momentum of fiction. Too often, these accounts tend toward an idea that growing up is comprised of singular milestones that shape the people we become. But in stacking together the more mundane days we’ve all experienced, there’s a naturalism to Boyhood, similar to Linklater’s earlier work in the Before series, or Dazed and Confused, that elicits a more meaningful message about the things we carry through the consciousness of our youth.
There’s a scene in a diner as Mason wrestles with his awareness that his mother is just as uncertain as he is—the sort of ah-ha moment in every child’s life when we’re so intent on pushing for the answers of adulthood that we fail to recognize that at any age, we’re all still skating by on chips of ice. It’s this type of microscopic focus on the quiet epiphanies that hints at the notion that our lives are made up of more than their more easily disjointed chunks.
In full disclosure, after seeing the film I left the theater with a few scattered regrets. Spoiler alert: nothing really happens, and as a viewer conditioned by the tropes of Hollywood pomp, it felt like the coming-of-age conversion never truly came. Episodic progressions bleed from one to the next, and music seems to be used mostly to indicate how time and culture have progressed. Early Coldplay (“Yellow”), Britney Spears (“Oops! I Did It Again”), Gnarls Barkley (“Crazy”), Soulja Boy (“Crank That”), and Gotye (“Somebody That I Used to Know”) all make the cut. The plot doesn’t try to show you much you haven’t seen before—but the more I sat with the film in my head, the more I realized that was its whole premise. The value here is in the commonplace, and the argument the movie seems to be making is that it’s actually all the little things that make our lives feel big. The experience of trudging through our youngest years is enough, without requiring tragedy or earth-shaking adventure to make it count. The greatest struggle is in just growing up, in being a person, and continuing to be alive. Its interest is in how we navigate this space, in trying to find what we’re doing here in these bodies and in these minds, and finally, in understanding that even on the bad days, we’re all fighting the same fight.
And so those small hiccups—a scene that doesn’t play as it should here and there, or the exposed edges of amateur actors—don’t matter under the glow of all its light. The point is the process, not the product, and the way that extends to a practice in worldview is pretty simple. The story ultimately awakens beauty in the ordinary aspects of this extraordinary ride, and it is art of the purest, most generous kind.
The last sequence of the film is bittersweet in the sense that our almost three-hour journey with Mason comes reeling towards a close, and manages its wisdom couched in the circumstance of humor—which Boyhood contains much more of than you might expect. The film doesn’t take itself too seriously, but focuses on the fact that we should be paying more attention to ourselves, right here, right now. It isn’t asking that you be heroic, but it does ask you to be brave enough to live your life, and elevates the everyday to a higher, more melodic plane. It plays like the memory of a full life lived by someone who has realized that in the end, it all made a difference. The lazy afternoons spent playing video games with the friends we no longer know, the offbeat bosses in the small-town jobs, and even the haircut that found its way into your most miserable childhood dreams. There aren’t just a handful of events that make us into the people we are; rather, every moment, and every interaction, lends insight into what living in this world means. Everything matters, and once the glory of that really settles, doesn’t it feel like a part of us just grew up a little bit, too?