Everything Flows: BOYHOOD


When asked what BOYHOOD was about, I stumbled in finding the words for a two-sentence description; having had a few days to mull it over, my response now would be simply, “Everything.” It’s the best way to sum up what this film accomplishes, an experiment with a singular and inspired cumulative effect.

Writer/director Richard Linklater began filming the project in 2002 with then six-year-old actor Ellar Coltrane as his lead character, Mason. The objective was to film a little every year for the next twelve years and tell Mason’s story as he ages from a child to an adult. Only Michael Apted’s UP films have attempted something like this on such an extensive scale, but keep in mind that series revisits its subjects at seven-year gaps and is also a documentary. Linklater, on the other hand, has a riskier, more complex premise in place: to craft a unified piece of fiction over a dozen-year period with a cast principally made up of the same actors, which also include Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke (as Mason’s divorced parents), plus Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei (as older sister Samantha) and a few others who enter and exit the narrative at different intervals.

Naturally, Coltrane is the film’s wild card—one cannot possibly know exactly how a six-year-old will end up at twelve or eighteen, both physically and personality-wise. It’s also daunting for someone so young to commit to such a project and pull it off in terms of acting ability. Fortunately, Linklater made a solid choice in casting Coltrane. In a scene where a pre-teen Mason and his friends attend a midnight book release party for HARRY POTTER AND THE HALF-BLOOD PRINCE, you can’t help but think of the HARRY POTTER films—eight of them shot over a decade—and how their three primary young stars became more confident and skilled with each installment. You see the exact same process here with Coltrane, only the impact’s greater because it all happens in a little under three hours. By his teenage years, Coltrane eerily (but subtly) even starts to resemble Hawke a little, the result of both strong casting and acting.

BOYHOOD proceeds chronologically with no callbacks whatsoever. No subtitles to inform us of what year we’re in, either—pop music cues, different haircuts and the very occasional cultural reference (the 2003 Iraq invasion, Obama’s first presidential run) offer clues as to where we’re at in the timeline. Sometimes, due to a noticeable change in Mason’s appearance, a cut from one year to the next jars but it also thrills, reminding us that life itself always moves forward and continually changes. However, it’s a challenge to construct a narrative chronologically over such a lengthy period of time and keep it entirely cohesive. I’m not sure how much of the story Linklater had mapped out when he began filming, but one detour he takes (Arquette’s disastrous second marriage) tonally stands far apart from the rest of the film. Eventually discarded and barely referred to again, it’s an aberration for sure, but it still indirectly shapes the young man Mason becomes—as does, arguably, everything else in the film, no matter how significant or seemingly mundane.

Witnessing this process of an actor/character growing up gives the film its hook and its kick, but I kept wondering what its value was beyond that gimmick. Not until more than two hours in, at Mason’s high school graduation party did it hit me: as I watched that scene, its familiarity resonated deeply. The family posing for photographs, the gently awkward conversations, the supermarket-bought spread of cold cuts and pieces of fruit—I’ve been to gatherings awfully similar to if not exactly like this. Stepping back and looking at the film as a whole, one sees that it depicts a specific life story cultivated by character traits, decisions made and their particular consequences and regional embellishments (in this case, small town and suburban Texas culture)—Mason’s childhood is his own and not someone else’s. And yet, the film’s very structure follows a relatable, universal trajectory. Other individual scenes may strike a chord with you as powerfully as the graduation party did for me because as adults, we’ve all lived our own parallel versions of this narrative. Of course, BOYHOOD isn’t meant to be a stand-in for every life that’s lived, but it begs us to examine and compare our own childhoods with Mason’s, considering who we ourselves are and how we came of age.  Grade: A

One Response to Everything Flows: BOYHOOD

  1. Looking forward to this; Linklater is never dull, and seems to have a number of long-term projects of interest up his sleeve. Your review does a good job to whet the appetite.

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