When Richard Linklater was a teenager, he once crammed into a car with his friends and, searching for something to do, drove 138 miles without ever leaving town. This circular nocturnal journey—recounted in a recent profile in The New Yorker, and the seed for Linklater’s Dazed and Confused—evokes a familiar teenage anxiety: Something fantastic is going on around the next corner, if only you can find it. It’s a pre-cell phone FOMO, heightened by the tenuousness of information (no Google maps, no texting, no Facebook invitation). Much ground is covered; little perspective is achieved.
Going around in circles is a recurring theme in Linklater’s films. Not just in Dazed and Confused, but in his debut, Slacker (1991), a series of random coming and goings set over the course of a single day; and in the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight trilogy, in which the characters played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy wander through various European cities, bantering, falling in love, passing through impossibly elegant alleys. All fiction, said Tolstoy, is one of two stories: man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town. Linklater’s narratives are journeys without a destination. The urges that compel us from one place to another—the usual narrative engine—are secondary. It’s the rhythm of the footsteps, the way that problems are repeated, needled, and smoothed over that constitutes the story.
So I was curious to see whether Linklater’s latest film, Boyhood, shot over the course of twelve years, with the same cast—a kind of experiment in time-lapse movie-making—would fall into this pattern. Would the relentless forward motion of time break his circular tendencies?
The film is lengthy—almost three hours—and without much plot, but I sat rapt for every minute. It begins when Mason (Ellar Coltrane) is six, living with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater—Linklater’s daughter). The father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) has been MIA for a spell (he and Olivia are divorced), but has recently returned from Alaska. Olivia decides she should go back to school—get her college degree, improve their lot. The family relocates, Olivia marries one of her professors, they move into a much larger and more manicured house, complete with backyard trampoline and other trappings of upper-middle-class life. Mason Sr. continues to visit, struggling to maintain some kind of authentic relationship with children he is only able to see every now and then.
The film continues to unfold at this stately pace, with just a few implausible accelerations. When Olivia remarries, Mason and Samantha are joined in Brady Bunch–like harmony by their new stepfather’s children. Very quickly, melodrama unfolds, as the professor-stepfather turns into a monstrous, abusive drunk. These scenes stray into somewhat clunky afterschool-special territory, but for the most part the film abstains from this type of manufactured tension. When it summons danger, it is more often in the form of the subtle but no less terrifying hazards of youth: a saw blade that Mason and his teenage friends throw around for laughs, a text message that he reads while driving in his truck. And Boyhood—wicked stepfather plotline aside—is generally not dealing in conventional narrative materials: what happened next and who did what to whom. It is instead a carefully calibrated, subtle exploration of the various textures of different ages and the passage of time.
It’s hard to write about this theme—and probably much harder to make a film about it. The subject lends itself to hazy, dorm-room theorizing of a particularly cringe-inducing variety. But the film seems self-conscious of its pretensions. Yes, it opens with a dreamy shot of young Mason lying in the grass while Chris Martin croons “Look at the stars, look how they shine for you …” And it ends with a conversation between Mason and an implied new love interest about the true meaning of “carpe diem.” It’s like, the girl says, the reverse: “the moment seizes us.” Yeah, Mason agrees: “It’s always right now.” But these awkward articulations of the philosophical undertones of the film seem almost tongue-in-cheek, and they’re not so prevalent as to become oppressive. The point here seems to be that college freshman Mason is not much more enlightened about the funny tricks of time than his wistful six-year-old self, but there is beauty in his attempts to approach some insight on the matter. Mason becomes a photographer in his teens, and you cannot help but feel that his desire to capture the fleeting moment is part of the quest as well.
As a side note, it's worth noting that, amid all this seriousness, the film is also very funny. Some of this is inadvertent (or an accomplishment of the film’s masterful editor): a retro pleasure that arises when you see Mason play the Oregon Trail on one of those iMac computer that resembled giant jelly beans. (It’s a more authentic version of the cellphone-that-looks-like-a-brick joke.) Or Mason’s concern, when his mother tells him they’re moving, that his father won’t be able to find them. Don’t worry, she assures him, his dad can just call information to figure it out. Or the midnight madness surrounding the release of a new Harry Potter book. The film is fiction, but the real-life backdrop of current events is never far from the characters, and that backdrop is often very amusing.
Boyhood has been likened to Michael Apted’s Seven Up documentary series, which, beginning in 1964, has followed several individuals from age seven into their fifties, checking in at seven-year intervals. (The latest, 56 Up, came out last year.) In its conceit and episodic structure, the comparison is apt. But in its character, the film bears greater spiritual similarity to now-ubiquitous YouTube videos in which a person takes a picture of herself every day for a month or a year and stitches them together to tell the story of a pregnancy or a bout cancer or a child’s growth. The subjects of Seven Up tend to reckon with life choices, explain themselves, and awkwardly evade Apted’s pointed inquisitions into their romantic lives. We witness personal evolution, but just as much we are subject to the characters’ explanations of their evolution. Whereas YouTube time-lapse self-portraits are more purely observational; the point of these depictions is often little more than “time passes and things change.” Toward the end of the film, as Mason is about to depart for college, Olivia complains, with exaggerated exasperation, that she thought there would be more to life, that it all went too quickly. Her frustration is precisely the point: We often don’t realize we should be enjoying things until they’ve already passed. It is not a particularly original thought, but it is rendered, over the course of Boyhood, with gorgeous, understated elegance.