For such a quietly observant film, unhurried in pace and grounded in daily affairs, Richard Linklater’s Boyhood makes a lot of threats to end in violence. Drinking and driving, horseplay with flying saw blades, inexpert handling of a shotgun, assault with a blunt but shattering object: this is only a partial list of the potentially lethal activities that are made to coalesce, or sometimes erupt, around the central character, a boy named Mason, as he grows up in present-day Texas. Functionally, the notes of menace are useful for ratcheting up the tension now and then in a story that otherwise flows smoothly along Mason’s course, from city to city, school to school, parent to parent. It occurs to me, though, that a thematic purpose also animates these recurring moments of dreadful anticipation. They remind you, often obliquely but always with a pang, that it’s no sure thing for anyone to reach 18.
Nor was it a sure thing that Linklater would finish Boyhood. Maybe the hints of fatality in his story are also subtle traces, left on the movie’s surface, of an anxiety about the extraordinary way the film was made.
Linklater shot Boyhood intermittently over a twelve-year span, from 2002 through 2013, using a core group of performers whose central member, Ellar Coltrane, started as a 6-year-old and grew up playing Mason. The method made production as precarious as life itself. Money could have dried up at any time, or a key actor dropped out. Even the availability of the materials became doubtful, with the rise of video during these years making it increasingly difficult for Linklater to keep going with 35-millimeter film.
As you watch Boyhood and gradually catch on to its trick of honesty, realizing that there have been no substitutions in the cast—the 12-year-old on-screen is the same kid who was 10 before, and 8—and noticing that the actors playing the parents haven’t been aged with makeup but really are older, you might conclude, as I did, that Boyhood is one of the most patient, modest acts of daredevilry ever achieved on film. The persistence that Linklater maintained behind the camera must have been heroic; but in keeping with the subject matter, he doesn’t make a big deal of it. He just carries you through the story, as naturally and amazingly as an exemplary boy such as Mason reaches manhood.
When I call Mason exemplary, I mean he’s occupied with the activities of a great many American boys of his era. He steeps himself in the Harry Potter world, clicks madly at video games, listens to Coldplay, eats burgers, gets bullied, sometimes chafes under his parents and teachers, and eventually learns to talk to girls. So much for his main business. As for discovering the larger world, he experiences its events as myopically and discontinuously as most kids do: through a father who campaigns for Obama, for instance, and a mother and stepfather who buy a foreclosed house.
Maybe that doesn’t sound like enough to hold you rapt through a very long movie; but then, the exemplary is only half the picture. The other half is the characters’ back-and-forth struggle, by turns deliberate and instinctive, to pull away from the norm or squeeze back in. It’s this continually developing movement, more than any feint toward violence, that generates the deeper, more satisfying tensions in Boyhood.
In Mason’s case, of course, it takes a few years for the idiosyncrasies to show up. He seems at first to be much like any other 6-year-old boy with an arrowhead collection and a drama queen of an older sister (Lorelei Linklater). He’s just a little more full-lipped, perhaps, and more apt to spend the whole day staring out the window. It’s up to the estranged parents to give Boyhood its initial jolts of particularity.
The custodial parent (Patricia Arquette), a bundle of bustling organization and ripe sensual promise, is in her mid-30s when the story begins and has a habit of scattering declarations of need like psychic bread crumbs from a Hansel-less Gretel. Heedless, or perhaps not, that her children overhear them all, she will round on her current boyfriend at one moment, ordering him to get out if he can’t respect her for putting the kids first, and start wailing in frustration the next moment that she’s gone from being a daughter to a mother, with no time in the middle to be herself. Seeking a way out of her spiritual woods, she decides early in the film to return to college and earn a degree; and so she packs everyone in the car and moves to Houston, demonstrating a strength of will that is instructive for the children, combined with an equally characteristic impulsiveness that will keep them off-balance through most of their childhood.