Since the first days of film, directors have tried to capture the passage of time and the aging of actors. Early filmmakers borrowed techniques from the stage, using over-the-top theater makeup, or cast multiple actors of various ages in the same role. More recently, advances in prosthetics, traditional special effects and, eventually, digital trickery — displayed most memorably in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button — progressed on-screen aging so that it was almost believable. Almost.
Despite the genius of these artists, director Richard Linklater, in a single film, has upstaged them all by simply watching and waiting — and filming — over a span of 12 years. Boyhood, a film focused on the life of a seemingly average boy, was cast when the boy (played by Ellar Coltrane) was just 6 years old. Linklater also cast his own young daughter, Lorelei, as the boy's older sister, and Patricia Arquette as the boy's mother. The boy's father is played by Ethan Hawke, an actor who collaborated with Linklater on the Before series, another project involving the passing of real time. The trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) started filming in the early '90s and focused on the development of a couple's relationship over the course of two decades. Like Boyhood, its stars actually age in real time; the films are set nine years apart.
Now Linklater has compressed real time into a single film. He captures not just the maturation of his screenplay's characters, but the real aging of real people, creating a fascinating film and, at the same time, conducting a unique and noble experiment — even crossing the line from fiction into unintended documentary.
John Lennon wrote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." Linklater must agree, because to capture a childhood from ages 6 to 18, he's chosen not to portray many of life's predictable moments. Instead, he's selected seemingly random snapshots. By his doing so, we don't always get high drama, but we do get a patchwork quilt of existence. It has some misshapen squares, but when we examine the completed piece, we can see the story's truth.
These cinematic squares depict sibling squabbles, stolen peeks at Victoria's Secret catalogs, a first kiss, a first job, President Obama's first presidential campaign and, fittingly, attending a Harry Potter film, another series that successfully captures the fleeting youth and aging of children — and the actors who portray them. Other threads weave deeper, personal visions, like when the boy discovers his father's flaws and realizes that his mom is stuck in a cycle of doomed marriages.
Boyhood's concept may be great, but the finished film falls short of greatness. It's difficult to predict if a child will become an effective adult actor, and Coltrane and the young Linklater are just passable. With some clunky scenes and other average performances, the film, especially early on, lacks energy and momentum. By starting the story after the boy's parents are already divorced, Linklater robs us of a crucial episode in his life.
Still, when the movie's two hours and 46 minutes are up, we can't help but look back on the boy's youth and examine our own while wondering, as he does, "What's the point?" Despite the wrinkles in Linklater's time tapestry, he has given us one of the most memorable movies of the year, and probably his directorial masterpiece. Time was clearly on his side, and now it's on ours, too.