PARK CITY - The unexamined life, to tinker brashly with the words of Socrates, is not worth filming. That, at least, appears to be the key tenet behind much of Richard Linklater's work, in which ordinary lives are put under the most exacting of microscopes, and granted the level of scrutiny and detail usually reserved for the extraordinary. After the 18-year relationship study of the "Before" trilogy – currently a trilogy, at any rate – it seemed Linklater could hardly push his interest in magnified realism and time-lapse chronology any further. Turns out he can, and "Boyhood" is the astonishing result.
If not exactly a secret (Linklater and star Ethan Hawke
have alluded to it repeatedly in interviews over the years) “Boyhood” has nonetheless sounded like a kind of creative mirage: an ambitious pet project hinging on a stunt seemingly too clever to be true. Shot over a period of 12 years, using the same four principal actors throughout, it’s as literal a coming-of-age tale as has ever been conceived for cinema, with the fractured Texan family at its center growing up right before our eyes. Protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane
, in the most long-gestating breakthrough performance of all time) enters the film a bright, thoughtful six-year-old; nearly three hours later, he leaves it a still-precocious young man on his first day of college.
His is the most radical, unnerving transmogrification, though it’s a film of several: even Ethan Hawke, playing Mason’s playful, semi-absent man-child of a dad, seems ageless for several years until, suddenly and quite strikingly, he isn’t. The title, indeed, is a bit of a misnomer, unequal to the project’s generous, wildly expansive scope. Mason's boyhood is but one arc in a film that observes how adults and children alike are forced to build and rebuild lives, personalities, families and homes, subtly redefining themselves as often as they more visibly change address, relationship status or hairdo. Now that “Boyhood” is with us, it seems positively bizarre that Linklater – whose work rate has been more or less consistent over the years, even if the work itself has not – could have kept it stewing so steadily on the back burner all this time as he busied himself with the lesser concerns of “The Bad News Bears” or “Me and Orson Welles.” How does work on this scale not consume its creator?
Yet it’s the casual ease of “Boyhood’s” construction, its lack of a specifically lofty artistic objective, that makes it so effective: life at any stage isn’t lived according to a script, and Linklater’s loose, permeable narrative does its best to reflect that. Its closest cinematic forerunner, Michael Apted's ongoing series of “7 Up” documentaries, has of course been defined entirely by its subjects’ life choices, though the application of the concept to fiction – and compressed into a single feature film, to boot – invites a very different question of creative process. As with Francois Truffaut’s landmark Antoine Doinel series, how much “Boyhood” has been led by Linklater’s imagination and how much by the physical and psychological development of its own stars is all but impossible to determine.
Wherever the meeting point was, however, it was the right one. This yearly check-in process could have yielded chilly, laboratory-style results, but the film emerges as lively, messy, spontaneous – palpably and propulsively a movie rather than a showy experiment. It’d be mesmerizing even as a more static exercise, but “Boyhood” is a testament to just how much stuff
happens even in purportedly unremarkable lives. The shape and nature of Mason’s home life, for starters, is in constant flux – though the two constants are his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette
), a spiky divorcee whose no-nonsense smarts don’t extend to her catastrophic taste in men, and his older sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei, with an early aptitude for testy irony).