Writer/director Alexander Payne has said of cinema’s advent, “I think that mankind had been looking for this magnificently verisimilar art form which really mirrors life.” And like an answer to an unspoken prayer, “Boyhood” arrives after over a century of narrative cinema to show that the medium has far from exhausted its capabilities of wondrously recalling life beyond the screen.
Richard Linklater’s film is at odds with notions of conventional fictional cinema, resembling a curated ethnography in its creation. “Boyhood” condenses twelve years of shooting a young boy growing up through his grade school years into under three hours, not into a prescribed narrative arc but into a singular sort of time capsule.
It’s not crossing off significant life experiences of childhood and adolescence from a preordained bucket list. It’s not out to provide an alternate cultural history through a child’s eyes. It’s not trying to make some grand statement about the ever-changing nature of boyhood (nor about the various things that seem to stay the same). It’s not even necessarily moving towards any sort of dramatic climax other than the ultimate one we all have to face, that of the end of time.
Instead, “Boyhood” focuses mostly on the mundane moments and the routine conversations, so literally portraying “slices of life” that no film can really lay claim to the phrase anymore. Yet in the sheer act of capturing these everyday occurrences, Linklater elevates the profane to the level of sacred. These brief and otherwise insignificant flashes of childhood are nothing, yet they are also somehow everything.
And much like reality itself, these twelve real years/three cinematic hours fly by in the blink of an eye. “Boyhood” flashes ephemerally before us, recalling strong emotions from the reserves of our own memories in the process. The film will have a special resonance for viewers who grew up in roughly the same time frame as Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), responding to cultural cues varying from nostalgic pining over the joys of “Harry Potter” to the slightly more embarrassing yesteryear jams of Soulja Boy. (It is destined to strike an extra special chord for all those who, like me, grew up in Houston.)
Yet even for those who might not be contemporaries of the protagonist, “Boyhood” also offers a parallel story of parenthood. Playing out behind Mason’s ongoing maturation are the two still-unfolding tales of his parents, the mom who raises him (Patricia Arquette) and the dad who pops in on occasion (Ethan Hawke). The dramas that each of them bring to the film serve as a potent reminder that growing up is a never-ending process.
Simply because Mason’s parents are present does not mean that they are fountains of wisdom and knowledge to inform both him and the audience. Linklater doesn’t force profundity with any act of humanity in “Boyhood,” instead leaving time itself to deliver that in an act of remarkable faith. And sure enough, his loosely linked observations of a family’s fate unfolding feel like about as complete a realization of life itself in narrative cinema as possible. A- /