Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, 12 Years in the Making
Artistic intent is an often-debated mode of dissecting a finished product. What the artist went into the project intending to render presumably dictates the manner in which we, as audience members and general consumers of art, perceive it. With film, it’s also a common conception that, once the piece is finished and released into the world, 50% of its production now lies in the hands of the audience. The thought is that a movie doesn’t fully exist without someone to watch and perceive it. Both concepts are true, while neither holds predominant sway over the reception of art. What we go into an experience knowing, or not knowing, can drastically alter our perception of any given event. But while in the moment of interpretation, we are subject to a series of perceptions that exist independently of pre-defined knowledge.
Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is an interesting exercise in whether or not artistic intent truly matters. The film is the story of a boy, his sister and his parents as they grow and meander through life over the course of twelve years. To watch it is to experience life unfolding before your eyes while feeling the keen sensation that virtually nothing is happening. It’s effortless in its honesty, ambitious in its scale, and unparalleled in its impact. But part of that impact also comes from the realization that it was filmed over the course of twelve years. All of its actors, including Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei, and the remarkable Ellar Coltrane as Samantha and Mason Evans, age twelve years by the film’s conclusion. Aside from the loosely-scripted transition, everyone involved not only grew and changed but incorporated aspects of their own lives into the piece to emphasize its tangible reliability.
What we’re left with, however, far surpasses Linklater’s initial intent. His concept was grand, and it is this broad thinking that makes Boyhood an unequivocal masterpiece of modern cinema. But artistic intent aside, Boyhood is also one of the most emotionally intuitive films ever made and is a landmark experience unlike anything else in the history of the cinema.
There have been films that try to capture the essence of childhood; of the progression from youth to some semblance of the brink of adulthood. Films like Clueless, Can’t Hardly Wait, Stand by Me, The Craft, Ginger Snaps, Risky Business, Revenge of the Nerds, The Karate Kid, Dead Poets Society, Heathers, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and Say Anything – to name many – all deal with every conceivable notion of the progression through youth.
Boyhood succeeds where these, and countless others, fall short. Instead of trying to recreate seismic events that take place during our development, Boyhood simply exists. Everyone loses their virginity at some point. The first time you try smoking pot, the first time you drive a car, the first time you kiss someone – while all of these are significant milestones, they’re uniform. They happen to everyone. What makes Boyhood so special is that it doesn’t attempt to hone in on momentous occasions. It’s not about milestones so much as it’s simply an acknowledgment of the passage of time. That one of the most remarkable things about youth is that it passes, and does so quickly. In the span of nearly three hours, we watch a six-year-old boy transform into a college-bound young man. His life literally flashes before us, transcending the expectation that we are defined by moments. Instead, Boyhood shows us that we are the sum of our time, and the insignificant scrapes and bumps we acquire along the way.
Ellar Coltrane as Mason Evans Jr., the boy whose childhood we’re consuming, is exceptional. It’s his naturalism that leaves the greatest impact. He’s just a kid being a kid. He’s not asked to perform any tearful soliloquies, and will likely not attract any awards this season, but that hardly matters. We believe him, and we become him. That alone is remarkable.
Boyhood stands as one of the best films of the past decade.
Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are in fantastic form. The seasoned professionals in this cast of unknowns, you can feel their relationship with their pseudo-children grow and mature over the years. As the film progresses, their interaction relaxes, and their roles become more natural. Even parents take time to experience their children as human beings, as opposed to fleshy vessels of risk that require constant protection. Hawke and Arquette bring that to the foreground with grace in a way that actively reminds us of our own parents, whether divorced or still together.
Lorelei Linklater as mildly obnoxious older sister Samantha brings the perfect natural conflict to the table. When we’re young, we never get along with our siblings. If you did, you were lucky. As you approach maturity and adulthood, whatever age gap between you seems to shrink. Lorelei and Coltrane bring that natural dynamic to the screen in spades, bickering horribly as little children, passive-aggressively as teenagers, and then finally embracing one another as they transition into adulthood.
What Richard Linklater has given us is the ultimate nothing-happens film, but because it spans more than a decade, everything happens. It’s impossible to see the forest for the trees when you’re in the thick of it. It’s just a huge jumbled mess of life. But as we grow, we learn to appreciate the mess and to see where that mess was taking us. As an adult, the missed opportunities seem more apparent, the limitless potential suddenly feels conceivable, and it all stands out as the possibility you never knew existed. So, in many ways, this pinnacle of Linklater’s career is as pleasurably melancholic as it is overtly uplifting.
It reminds us of missed opportunities, foolish preconceived notions, immature decisions, and the restlessness of youth. It is the promise of tomorrow and the sensation of unbridled potential. It is the limitlessness of life. Linklater has captured the sensation of living in all of its pain and beauty, both its mundane moments of nothingness and its instances of immeasurable breadth. As a result, Boyhood is unspeakably striking.
— Ariel Fisher
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.