The Years Shall Run Like Rabbits
by Michael Koresky

Dir. Richard Linklater, U.S., IFC Films

The idea for Boyhood seems to have come to Richard Linklater in a dream.

Woman: “What are you writing?”
Man: “A novel.”
Woman: “What’s the story?”
Man: “There’s no story. It’s just people. Gestures. Moments. Bits of rapture. Fleeting emotions. In short, the greatest stories ever told.”
Woman: “Are you in the story?”
Man: “I don’t…think so. But then, I’m kind of reading it and then writing it.”

This exchange takes place in the mind of the eternally sleeping protagonist of Waking Life, the gossamer, stream-of-unconscious animation that Richard Linklater released in 2001, one year before starting work on Boyhood. Made over the course of twelve years though shot in only thirty-nine days, Boyhood comes with an astonishing hook: it’s a coming-of-age story in which we get to see its young protagonist grow up on screen. Yet the film’s headline-readiness ends there. As the quoted scene above from Waking Life anticipates, this is a narrative about life at its most mundane—its minute gestures, its daily disappointments and happy surprises, its gradual forward motion—and in its unhurried, unforced observational style and humane warmth Linklater may indeed have ended up with one of the greatest stories ever told.

Filming with his main actors for a few days every year, Linklater captured the experiences and textures of one kid’s fairly normal, middle-class American life as well as the sociocultural landscape (in this case suburban East Texas) that shapes him. That the unique filmmaking approach also allows for a record of human aging—which with our limited movie vocabulary we can only call “documentary-like”—serves to make the film even richer than it already is. And because of this process, Linklater, like Waking Life’s ruminative coffee-shop writer-dreamer, in a sense “wrote it as he read it”—in other words he could only create the fiction bit by bit, depending on the caprices of time and surveying the emotional topography as it grew up around him. It’s a film that comes into being in deliberately awkward fashion; Boyhood’s incrementally finding out what it is, trying to create a philosophy and identity for itself—not unlike the process of growing up.

As its title suggests, Boyhood is primarily concerned with the emergence into being of its young male character, Mason, and simultaneously the actor who plays him, Ellar Coltrane. But Linklater is too generous an artist, and too consistently engaged in the beauty of human connection (“I believe if there’s any kind of God it wouldn't be in any of us, not you or me, but just this little space in between,” says Celine in his Before Sunrise) to make this merely a film about one boy’s life. Equally important to the film’s evocation of childhood are Mason’s mother (Patricia Arquette), the largely absent but loving father (Ethan Hawke) from whom she divorced years before the narrative begins, and Mason’s older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter), all of whom age and change onscreen in physical and emotional ways that are as integral to the film as Mason’s evolution. With his history of self-conscious temporal play (Tape and Before Sunset unfold in “real time”) and contained narratives (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, and Sunset all take place over single days), Linklater has often explicitly asked his viewers to experience time as they watch his movies; Boyhood is his ultimate statement in this regard.

There is such a multitude of drama—central and peripheral, diegetic and extratexual, fiction and non, onscreen and off—nested within this long but beguilingly simple film that sometimes it’s difficult to even know how to take it all in or even where to look. One could start, of course, with Coltrane’s face, which opens the film in close-up, a round-cheeked, thick-lipped cherub who’s the spitting image of Scarlett Johansson as he lies on a patch of grass staring up at the clouds with the innocent, intense focus of a children’s picture-book protagonist. One could say that the process of watching him mature and grow into his face and body (by the end of the film, Coltrane’s ScarJo features will spread out and deepen into something more like those of Josh Brolin) supplies the drama that the film, which largely eschews traditional narrative, refuses. Especially upon a first viewing, because the film simply floats along, imperceptibly moving ahead from one year to the next on waves of laidback, Linklaterian looseness, we are left to infer drama rather than experience it—perhaps we are only here to watch time unfold. But to assume this is somewhat limiting: Boyhood has a structure that’s no less deft and a form that’s no less shaped for being made up as it went along. Our lives have patterns, even if we don’t see them until we take a step away and look back.

Near the end of the film, Arquette mentions a “series of milestones” to Mason, including “the time we thought you were dyslexic, the time we taught you how to ride a bike”; also weddings, divorces, getting her master’s degree. At this point, we realize that we didn’t see any of this onscreen. Most great movies require the audience to complete them, and this is especially the case for Linklater’s film, which plays—completely, uncynically—to each viewer’s own memories of childhood, however socioeconomically or geographically different those experiences likely were from the Texas suburban world we’re watching. Because the film is so focused on time rather than event, it allows us to recall life when it moved at a different pace. The years of youth we see dramatized and documented onscreen, from 2002 to 2013, are a blip on the radar for adults, but as they cocooned Mason and Ellar Coltrane from age seven to eighteen, they are a lifetime. In this experiencing of someone else’s time, Boyhood registers as a work of enormous empathy.

Even more than its perfectly Bazinian high concept, the most radical thing about Boyhood is that it’s ultimately a story about, well, a really nice kid. This doesn’t mean that Mason’s life is free of disappointment or conflict, but that Linklater refuses to make the character a “troubled youth” by dint of his occasional adversities. We’re not following the gradual formation of a lost soul; instead we're tracking an emotionally healthy, intellectually curious, and, perhaps most refreshing of all, somewhat average all-American kid who is the product of divorced parents yet isn’t defined by that; whose single mom twice subjects him to the emotional tumult of alcoholic stepfathers, yet isn’t traumatized by that; who is the younger brother of a more outspoken, overachieving sister yet isn’t particularly bothered by that; who even by film’s end has yet to find his true creative or professional calling yet isn’t distressed by that. Instead of offering one-to-one psychological readings, Linklater lightly dramatizes how the gradual accruing of experience shapes one’s character and interests.

Looking retrospectively at the steady arc of Mason’s life so far, one might get frustrated wondering just who this kid really is, which is okay because even by film’s end he’s not sure either. His early years are reassuringly, enjoyably run-of-the-mill. When we first meet him, he’s been lightly reprimanded by his teacher for breaking a pencil sharpener while using it to turn rocks into arrowheads. He unearths a dead bird in his backyard. He spray-paints some harmless graffiti. He and a friend curiously, mechanically ooh and ahh over the women’s underwear section of a department store catalog. He gets mad at his older sister for annoyingly serenading him with Britney Spears’s “Oops! I Did It Again.” These non-events, captured with observational nonchalance, come at the viewer in prosaic, one-after-another fashion. But even in these innocent days there are small ruptures: discussions of an absent father, supposedly in Alaska; a visit from mom’s unfriendly boyfriend, who tries to guilt her for not getting a replacement babysitter on their date night—pointing ahead to her string of failed, occasionally abusive, relationships; and finally mom’s announcement that the family is packing up and moving to Houston, a development that Samantha reacts to with brilliantly evoked kid denial (“Nope, nope, nope,” she says in a sing-song voice, little Lorelei Linklater popping her lips in defiance.) Soon, the kids are painting over the height charts penciled on the living room doorframe, readying their childhood house for the next inhabitants and driving off with mom to start afresh in a new city. Then in a miraculously discreet cut, Mason and Samantha barge into their new bedroom and, if we look close enough, we might see that Mason is a little shaggier and Samantha is a bit taller. A year has passed in the blink of an eye.

It’s the first of many breathtaking moments that remind us of the power cinema can wield over time, like that single cut in Scorsese’s Raging Bull from De Niro the buff, middleweight champion in Detroit to De Niro the big-bellied lout eating a sandwich in his Bronx apartment, or when the little boy and girl jump off the porch and directly into their wedding day in There Will Be Blood. The film will constantly engage the viewer, forcing us to scan the screen for signs that we have leapt ahead in time. There are no on-screen title cards or fade-outs to indicate the passage of years, just the wear and tear of bodies, the shifting of clothing styles, the ever-increasing physical and emotional gravities the actors contain. This is especially apparent in the development of the nonprofessional kids’ acting styles, which seem subject to normal growing pains. Lorelei Linklater—previously only seen onscreen as an animated tyke fussing over a bit of origami in the first scene of Waking Life—starts out as a remarkably instinctive child actor, loveably performative and unafraid of the camera, and while she remains an unforced performer throughout, she grows more withdrawn and taciturn; thus the character of Samantha is created in concert with the young actor’s increased reticence as an on-camera presence. The director has repeated in interviews that his daughter begged off the project somewhere in the middle, even asking that her character get killed off (it’s amusing and terrible to imagine the emotionally different film that might have resulted from such a choice), but one needn’t know this to read into many of her mannerisms as simply “get me out of here, dad” disaffection, especially during the acne-and-braces phase.

Coltrane, who of course gets increasingly expansive screen-time, is even more under the microscope, moving in alarmingly rapid fashion through his awkward years, his body widening and lumbering, then stretching into adolescent gangliness before finally settling into a comfortably lanky adult frame. Mason never comes across as recessive like his sister during the clumsy tween years but a certain self-negation begins to creep into the edges of his acting style around age twelve that adds to the overall poignancy of the performance. It’s in the way he swings his slightly heftier body around during a camping trip or how, a year later, pulled thin like taffy and dealing with a newly sprouted mustache, he appears ill at ease making small talk with a pretty fellow student who wants to chat about To Kill a Mockingbird. Minutes before, in images shot years earlier, Coltrane had scampered across the screen with unself-conscious ease, unaware that the tyranny of puberty is about to set in.

As Mason and Samantha’s shepherds, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are marvels of naturalism, their respective onscreen growths—as both performers and physical beings—communicating individual narratives of frustration and maturity, made even more complicated by the fact that, despite their own respective confusions, they must also care for and set examples for their children. “I was somebody’s daughter, then I was somebody’s mother,” Arquette animatedly, even angrily exclaims early in the film to a boyfriend during a fight; save for a particularly desperate moment in which she screams to Samantha, “I don’t have the answer for everything,” such bristling resentment seems to largely subside for the remainder of Boyhood. Arquette’s Olivia instead throws herself into higher education, working toward a master’s degree for the greater part of the narrative. The endless, decade-spanning pressures of academia supply a sly side narrative to the film; Arquette is often seen over the years studying and taking classes, poring over open text books, and finally teaching her own class, all the while juggling parenthood. Because of her schedule and ambition one cannot help but sympathize even when she takes husbands—first, a pompous professor; second, a student and Iraq War veteran—who offer the promise of financial and emotional stability but who turn out to be less than ideal father figures for her children.

It’s fair to say that an entire separate film could be made from the point of view of Olivia, whose own twelve years are a study in weary resilience; by journey’s end she’s become indomitable, a point that Linklater refuses to underline, allowing Arquette’s beautifully lined face to do the talking. Hawke’s Mason Sr., on the other hand, grows less steely as the film progresses, softening from bounding, hipster dad terrified of obligations to an acquiescent family man with his own separate clan. Hawke, ever the garrulous thinker in Linklater’s films, refuses to play the stereotype of the absentee father, as does his character, who at one point in the film says to Mason and Samatha that he will not be “that guy . . . the biological father cliché,” who blows into town once a year, gets perfunctory time with the kids, and then disappears. Yet this divorced dad is constantly in his own form of denial about the clichés he inevitably inhabits (he also tells his aging rocker roommate while cleaning up his mess, “I’m not your fucking Tony Randall”). Hawke exquisitely enacts the slow realization of this denial; as his character comes to accept his obligations toward his family, the actor ever so gradually lets down his guard, his youthful dad jocularity and bravado transitioning to sensitive, gray-templed fatherhood.

Alongside the pleasures of watching these actors and characters develop is the satisfaction of experiencing Linklater’s cannily crafted tour through the early twenty-first century. Through pop cultural references, Linklater is able to both accurately portray the emotional and tactile world of child and teenage hood from 2002 to 2013 and provide occasional temporal road markers. An elaborate book premiere for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, for which Mason dresses up in requisite robe and plastic glasses, places us in 2005; it’s clearly 2008 when Mason asserts Tropic Thunder, The Dark Knight, and Pineapple Express as “the three best movies of the summer.” Such mainstream signifiers might come as a surprise initially to Linklater fans, as the director’s films about youth, from Slacker to Dazed and Confused to Before Sunrise, have tended to more countercultural or academic references, but Boyhood is nothing if not honest about how pop informs and shapes our lives, especially as kids. The soundtrack—opening the film with the buoyantly romantic jingle-jangle of Coldplay’s 2001 hit “Yellow” and climaxing it with Family of the Year’s 2012 “Hero” before an Arcade Fire closing-credits epilogue—speaks to this as well: Linklater has said that the track list came about by polling people of Mason’s age to see what songs they associated with those years onscreen.

A decided lack of coolness is essential to Boyhood, a film smartly ambivalent enough to skewer both McCain and Obama supporters in a 2008 scene when Mason Sr. enlists his kids to stump for the latter: it’s fish-in-a-barrel when a middle-aged white man with a confederate flag self-righteously dubs the Democratic nominee “Barack Hussein Obama,” but Linklater shows hilarious balance when a silly Obama supporter practically hugs herself while telling Samantha, “I have these dreams when I’m just kissing him, I love him so much!” There’s no sense that the film is telling us there is a right or wrong way to live, a cool or not cool way to be; we’re all haplessly children, blindly feeling our way toward some hoped-for revelation. Mason is never above awkward moments, such as his faux-casualness—expertly performed by Coltrane—when the clearly virginal character is asked by bullying peers if he’s ever had sex. Even later, as he gets increasingly comfortable in his skin, lands a high school girlfriend, becomes interested in photography, and ends up as what one might dub “a cool kid,” Mason is never portrayed as overly exceptional. However thoughtful and individualized, he is unavoidably a mix of conflicting impulses and social conditions. In other words, he’s a product of a specific geographical place—the inherent duality of which is driven home in a remarkable, gentle sequence in which Mason celebrates his fifteenth birthday with his dad’s new in laws, dyed-in-the-wool Texans who gift him his first Bible and gun.

It’s tempting to read one final growth narrative into Boyhood, this one from an auteurist angle. Boyhood could also be said to chart the evolution of Linklater as a cinematic chronicler of lives, moving away from the stylized, more narratively conceptual Linklater of Slacker and Waking Life to the more casual, intuitive Linklater that began to take shape with School of Rock and Before Sunset and continues to this day. Linklater made eight features during the on-off production of Boyhood, and it’s amusing to correlate sections of the film with his movies being made the same year: when Hawke first appears in 2003, thin and a bit haggard, he seems to have just flown in from the Before Sunset shoot in Paris; was the violent stepfather material that happens around 2006 in any way influenced by Linkater’s very dark one-two punch of Fast Food Nation and A Scanner Darkly?

Throughout Boyhood, as Linklater moves toward ever more confident and casual ways of capturing the beauty of human interaction, Ellar Coltrane begins to imperceptibly move toward embodying the quintessential Linklater protagonist. By film’s end, Coltrane even has the delicate manner and slight drawl of Wiley Wiggins, Dazed and Confused and Waking Life’s central dreamer. Mason has blossomed into the kind of searching, soulful youth we’ve seen in Slacker, Dazed, Before Sunrise, and Waking Life, bursting with potential but far from fully realized. It’s miraculous to watch this slow but sure spiritual melding between author and subject. It’s probably too much to ask Linkater to continue the story of Mason’s life, so he’ll have to now live on in our minds, as both a memory and a herald of an unknown future.