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Nothing Happens and Everything Happens in 'Boyhood'

Twelve years in the making, 'Boyhood' is a modern masterpiece.

IFC Films

Boyhood is my family. It's your family. It's a dusty photo album, a faded portrait hanging over the mantle. It's a Facebook wall, a filtered Instagram feed of memories. Boyhood is all of these things without trying to be anything else. It exists because we exist, and there's a penetrating beauty to that. 

Boyhood is proof of the evolution of its creator, writer/director Richard Linklater. The Dazed and Confused filmmaker's career is marked by his interest in time. Dazed, for example, takes place in a day, like a Virginia Woolf novel. While Linklater's Before trilogy features the same characters meeting every nine years. Truncated or epic, the director spins time to his liking to tell his stories. In Slacker, Linklater's first (released) feature, a character muses that "time doesn't exist." But with his newest film, time not only exists, it's a supporting character.

'Boyhood'
IFC Films

You may have heard about the ambitious technique behind the making of this film. Linklater's grand idea was to create a movie where the actors age in real time. To accomplish the feat, he and his crew met once a year for 12 years and filmed for a few days at a time. The result is a film that's as naturalistic as life itself. And the accomplishment isn't thanks to the technique alone. Linklater's subtle story, that eschews melodrama in favor of simple moments, transitions easily from year to year. It's a landmark film in terms of editing, pace, tone, and shot selection. 

Boyhood tells the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age seven to nineteen. His family rounds out the supporting cast along with many different friends, teachers, and girlfriends. His mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke) are divorced so Dad only shows up once in a while and Mason's life is spent with Mom and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter). From the beginning, it's clear Boyhood isn't a typical film. The second shot is the image seen on the poster, Mason lying in the grass staring at the clouds. He's quite literally seeing time pass before his eyes. It's a microcosm of the viewing experience for the audience. 

Seeing time unfold before our eyes, Mason slowly gets a little taller and his hair keeps falling into his eyes a little more. His sister morphs from a Britney Spears-belting tyke into a long-haired, thoughtful young woman and their parents thicken and gray. Linklater allows the aging process to flow organically. He eschews obvious transitions and instead allows time to mark itself, as it does in life. The actors' appearances change, yes, but so does music and technology, to name a few. Coldplay turns into Arcade Fire and cathode ray tubes become smart phones. The director infuses the film with dozens of tiny road signs, inklings that the march of time waits for no man.

Nothing Happens and Everything Happens in 'Boyhood'
IFC Films

But Linklater's main purpose is to investigate the emergence of self. By allowing us into Mason's life a little at a time, perhaps we can discover what makes him tick (and us as well, by default). By experiencing certain moments with Mason, we get to know him. We grow up with him and we get to see how his personality changes from the time he's a kid to when he heads off to college. Linklater makes the audience surrogate parents. It's an incredible experience.

It's the little moments that give Boyhood its profound identity. Linklater doesn't make Mason a child prodigy, or a victim like other movies would. But he is in charge of who Mason will be. He allows the boy to live and grow up as normally as most of us. Nothing happens and everything happens.

Living with divorced parents, Mason and Samantha both must endure their mother's terrible taste in men (she marries two alcoholics), while only getting glimpses of their father, who sees them every other weekend. But the parents grow like their kids do. Arquette is especially true as Olivia. In the early years, she whines about losing her identity with a random boyfriend. "I was someone's daughter and then I was someone's mother!" But by the end of the movie, she's a successful professor who throws parties for the entire neighborhood. The film's nostalgic without being contradictory. Bad things do happen, but they're dealt with and everyone moves on.

Mason's family moves around Texas a lot for different reasons. So the boy is always saying goodbye. But Linklater doesn't dwell on those moments. The very first scenes of the film show Mason playing with one of his friends. They mess around in the dirt, spray paint walls, and leaf through the Victoria's Secret catalogue ("Look at those!"). But when Mason has to move away, there's no big moment. Instead Linklater frames the friend on his bike as Mason drives off. You can't really see him as he waves from the distance. He's already a part of the past. 

Like life, Boyhood is the sum of many moving parts, characters, and moments. And at the center of it all is a young man whose quiet grace and dignity adheres him to us unquestionably. It's hard to pinpoint whether Ellar Coltrane's reserved performance as Mason is a reflection on the actor or the method. Either way, he's a presence onscreen. In their early scenes, Samantha dominates as the older sibling, providing fantastic comic relief. But as he gets older, Mason finds his voice and the film gradually becomes his. In that respect, the movie itself grows up along with the protagonist. It's a stunning accomplishment for a filmmaker. 

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