Boyhood – which I saw earlier this evening – has to be one of the most satisfying cinematic experiences of my life. I was initially skeptical of the central device that has garnered most of the attention since the film’s release, namely Richard Linklater’s tracking of his actor Ellar Coltrane (the boy in the film’s title), over the decade that he made the film, as Coltrane grows from six- or seven year-old to college freshman; but this move, along with wonderful editing and Linklater’s mastery of unhurried narrative that is always engrossing, enables the director to represent the passage of time in a more meaningful way than just about any other film I can think of. So completely did Boyhood draw me into its world, so thoroughly did the film evoke the rhythms of ordinary lives in early twenty-first century Texas, that I found myself caring for the film’s characters – not just Coltrane’s Mason but his parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), each also played by actors whose real-life aging is captured on-screen – more deeply than is true of other movies. In the time the viewer feels he has spent with these people, Boyhood is reminiscent of great nineteenth century-novels, or contemporary television series – yet the film is short of three hours, and, given that it has been shot over such a long period, remarkably compressed. (In this, it is the opposite of the director’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset/Before Midnight trilogy, each of which represented a relatively short period of time drawn out over the film’s time at greater length than is typical for movies, creating the illusion that the films captured the characters’ encounters in something close to “real time”.)
Coltrane’s wistful eyes and furrowed brow – at every age – anchor the film, even as the effect of his gesturality changes from melancholy early on to a charmingly laid-back form of cool by film’s end. But both Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are outstanding as well, the latter as the absent-but-loving father who changes from a left-leaning young man into a middle-aged pillar of the bourgeoisie; and the former as his ex-wife, who makes more than one disastrous romantic decision but emerges strong and successful – hers is the character you really root for.
What’s the film about? What are all coming-of-age books or movies about? But just when I thought that the film’s ambition was to represent a young, creative consciousness, Boyhood surprised me: “I thought there would be more” are an anguished Olivia’s last words in the film, articulating both her drive and the naïveté underlying it. There isn’t, really, but that doesn’t make the ending bleak: the film’s last shot is of Mason and a new friend after they’ve just agreed that life isn’t about seizing the moment, but about the moments seizing you, because they’re all there is. The insight retrospectively structures the movie, studded as it is with scenes – father and son on a hike; an unlikely testimonial as to how Olivia has changed someone’s life; Mason Jr. and his girlfriend’s night out in Austin – that remind me, despite my own preference in recent years for the best of American TV when it comes to storytelling, of just what is possible in cinema: beauty.