Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood
Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood

Anyone who’s been paying attention to film writing over the last few weeks is likely aware of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood. In the past month there have been Internet think pieces, behind-the-scenes reports, a New Yorker profile of the director, and online detritus with such embarrassing headlines as “The Real Reason ‘Dazed & Confused’ Isn’t Mentioned in ‘Boyhood'” (I won’t link to it). Mainly this has to do with the movie’s unusual production: Over a period of 11 years, for about two weeks each year, Linklater filmed portions of Boyhood using the same principal actors, then edited the footage together to create a continuous story that follows its protagonist from first grade to freshman year of college. Along the way, actor Ellar Coltrane matured from a seven-year-old to a 19-year-old, and because of the unique way in which Linklater captures physical transformation, Boyhood is being praised for its portrayal of how people grow and change.

Linklater has been making movies for almost 30 years now, mapping his own maturation from young adulthood to middle age and, not coincidentally, pursuing a personal obsession with time and its relationship to film. Each of his first four features to win distribution—Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993), Before Sunrise (1995), and SubUrbia (1996)—takes place over a single day, as do Tape (2001), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013). And his celebrated “Before” trilogy, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, plots the stages in a couple’s romance, from their initial courtship and parting to their reunion nine years later to their marriage and parenthood nine years after that. Boyhood represents an even more focused examination of how people and relationships develop over time.

Yet for a film that captures the drama of human development, Boyhood ultimately proves that people never really change all that much. Over its nearly three-hour running time, the physical features of Mason (Coltrane) and his older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), change radically, yet the characters’ mannerisms, behavior, and personalities largely remain the same.

Take Mason: When the film opens, he’s lying on a patch of grass, gazing up at the sky, lost in thought; when it closes, he’s in the desert, gazing out onto the horizon, still lost. In between he spends a lot of time staring out into the world, from myriad windows and eventually through the lens of a camera. Gestures that distinguish him in early childhood persist into adulthood—a sheepish closed-mouth smile and an upward sideways glance whenever he’s consternated or criticized. He’s precocious but quiet; when he does speak, he chooses his words carefully. When he voices his displeasure with his new stepfather, his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), points out, “Now we have a family.” Annoyed, Mason accurately observes, “We already had a family.”

Seemingly trivial events from childhood can become the basis for an adult’s passions, but Mason’s seem intrinsic to his character, not imposed from the outside. In one of the earliest scenes Mason and his friend tag a wall with crude spray-paint drawings; eight years later he shows off much more colorful and detailed graffiti drawings to a girl in his bedroom. When Mason is young he spends a lot of time playing video games (first on a Game Boy Advance and a few years later on an Xbox); to get him interested in other visual pursuits, someone gives him a camera, and photography quickly becomes his calling.

Mason is quiet and passive, observing the adults around him with a mixture of disappointment and exasperation, and this never changes in the course of the movie, despite the fact that he begins as a highly dependent child and ends as a self-sufficient adult. With women, Mason is similarly receptive and reserved, listening silently, shrugging off being teased with a sly smile, or seeming to bloom inwardly in grade school when a classmate passes him a flirtatious note. In high school, when he has his first real girlfriend, he becomes more chatty and open at first, but eventually he pulls back into himself, and she complains that he’s “gloomy.”

Though Mason is the central character, Linklater also explores this idea of fixed character in his treatment of the boy’s parents. Mason’s mother travels the greatest personal distance, going back to school, earning a degree, and becoming a college professor who lectures on B.F. Skinner and John Bowldy. Yet her personal behavior is frustratingly static: she perpetually puts herself before her kids, and they repeatedly suffer the consequences of her poor taste in men. She’s already divorced from their father, Mason Sr., when the movie opens, and she ignores the signs, clear to the viewer, that her second and third husbands—an alcoholic man who’s several years older than she and an army veteran who’s several years younger—are less than ideal partners. In a clever motif, Mason is shown observing conversations between her and her future spouses and figuring out for himself that these are romantic relationships.

Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke, who’s appeared in no fewer than eight Linklater features) doesn’t make as many decisions that haunt his children, but his absence from their daily lives and inability to become a responsible adult damage them all the same. Like Olivia, Mason Sr. covers a lot of ground in 12 years. Initially he’s a devil-may-care guy who smokes, drives a GTO, and shares a house with a shiftless rocker pal, their coffee table full of empty beer bottles and overflowing ashtrays. Later in the movie he remarries, trading in the GTO for a minivan and doing his best to fit in with his God-fearing, rifle-toting father-in-law, but he’s still irresponsible. When Mason Jr. reminds his father that he was once promised the GTO as a gift for his 16th birthday, Mason Sr. laughs off this story, claiming he would never say something like that.

Despite their flaws, Mason’s parents aren’t bad people; they’re flawed, complicated human beings making tough choices, not all of them good ones. Linklater doesn’t treat them as caricatures or stereotypes—the viewer doesn’t know their full stories, only what he sees during significant moments in the boy’s life. Boyhood is no more than that—a series of memorable moments that tell a larger story—and yet it gives a fuller sense of America in the 21st century than anything else committed to screen so far. As it turns out, the country hasn’t changed much either; land lines give way to iPhones and George W. Bush to Barack Obama, yet rural Texas remains a land of churches and bowling alleys, where people go target shooting in the woods, kids recite the Pledge of Allegiance before class, and angry white men still initiate young boys into the rituals of masculine aggression.

Boyhood is hardly a perfect movie—the last quarter isn’t quite as strong as what precedes it, and by the time Mason gets to high school the movie has grown less subtle, rushing to a stirring, blissful conclusion. But in recording how people grow physically but remain the same inside, Linklater has done something sublime: he’s made a film that captures the messy wonder of being alive. And being alive is about accepting the people you love for who they are, because even if the people you love don’t ever really change, it doesn’t change all of the things you love about them.