A Grownup Boyhood

Richard Linklater's latest experiment has more to say about parenthood than about its titular subject.
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Director Richard Linklater’s fascination with the passage of time, on- and off-screen, has long been evident. Twice—in 2004’s Before Sunset and 2013’s Before Midnight—he revisited the star-crossed lovers of his best film, 1995’s Before Sunrise, cataloguing, at nine-year intervals, the evolving stages of Jesse and Celine’s relationship and the ways circumstances pulled them together and apart.

With Boyhood, Linklater has conducted a related experiment, but he has done it across the span of a single film. He began shooting the picture in the summer of 2002 in his hometown of Austin, Texas, and he gathered his cast back together for a few weeks every year until completing the project in 2013. Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the titular “boy” whom we watch grow from ages six to 18; Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play his divorced parents; and the director’s own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, plays Mason’s older sister. As with the Before Sunrise sequels, the principal actors played an active role in writing the script, which unfolded, like the filming itself, over the course of 12 years.

The result is a fascinating exercise in fictive filmmaking, one that cannot help but be compared to the seminal Seven Up! documentaries directed by Paul Almond and Michael Apted. Indeed, like a great many of Linklater’s films, dating back to his 1991 debut, Slacker, there is a powerfully documentary-like feel to Boyhood, an immersion in ordinariness that is itself extraordinary. Many moments in the film conjure with tactile immediacy the experiences both of childhood and of parenthood.

Over the course of two hours and 45 minutes, we watch as Mason’s baby-fatted cheeks gradually hollow, as his voice deepens, as his limbs extend into a lanky adolescence. (That last shift is so dramatic in the jump between two of the “installments” that the film momentarily seems almost to have changed actors.) Wisps of facial hair appear, a dabbling in photography flourishes, a girlfriend enters the picture—it is as if we are watching Mason grow up before out eyes, because, of course, that is exactly what we are doing.

More compelling still are the life changes undergone by his parents, Olivia (Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Hawke). When we first meet the former, she is a single mom, struggling to balance work, kids, and the education she knows will enable her to get a better job. Mason Sr., by contrast, breezes into the film in a black Pontiac GTO, freshly returned from a year and a half in Alaska, where he was working fishing boats and writing music. The striking (and, I fear, all too customary) imbalance between the realities of single-motherhood and single-fatherhood are presented pitilessly, and will only grow starker as the film progresses.

Indeed if there’s a critique to be made of Linklater’s film, it is that it has a great deal more to say—or at least more interesting things to say—about grownups than about growing up. Remarkable as Mason Jr.’s physical transformation may be, socially and psychologically he’s not all that different at 18 from at six: a taller, more articulate version of the dreamy, aimless boy whose teacher complained that he spent his time “staring out the window all day,” but one whose life has developed in a relatively straight line—insofar, of course, as it’s had the opportunity to develop at all. Moreover, it is obviously a tricky thing to cast an actor so young and commit to his development over the next dozen years, and Coltrane never quite develops the gravitational pull to tether the movie. Yes, his character is meant to be an unfocused youth, but occasionally his comes across as merely an unfocused performance.

Arquette and Hawke, by contrast, are deep in their comfort zones (the latter, arguably, a little too much so at times). Arquette’s Olivia navigates parenthood like a maze in which there is no right path, her options constricted at every turn, her life never fully belonging to her. (As she complains to a boyfriend early in the film, “I was somebody’s daughter and then I was somebody’s fucking mother.”) Hawke’s Mason Sr., by contrast, drifts along in absentee cool-dad mode to such a degree that the movie’s title could almost be a reference to him—until, that is, he belatedly decides he’s grown up enough to trade in the GTO for a minivan and try it all over again. Indeed, there’s a powerful socio-cultural critique embedded in the film, and it’s a shame that it is largely confined to the margins. Boyhood is a unique and worthy addition to Linklater’s oeuvre. But I can’t help but think there may have been a better movie still lurking in his accumulated footage, one that with a mild shift in emphasis might have been titled, more ambitiously, Adulthood.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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