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Growing up is awkward, and painful, and, all in all, pretty incredible to watch. The transition from child to adolescent takes a toll on families as much as it does on teens themselves, even as nascent personalities and relationships bloom in the process.
Richard Linklater followed that process in real time for his newest feature, Boyhood. Over the course of 12 years (and 12 grades), Mason—played by Ellar Coltrane—experiences the trials and epiphanies of school, divorced parents, and a sibling. “It structurally needed a beginning and an end, and to me, [grade school] was childhood,” Linklater tells Washington City Paper. “Getting out of high school felt like the biggest shift you have, really…After that, you can start opting out of things.”
Starting in 2002, Linklater filmed the project for a few weeks every year. Though he began with a general outline and endgame in mind, the specifics of Mason’s life took shape as Coltrane grew up. Linklater could write a year at a time, and the long breaks between shoots allowed him to suss out any changes he might want to make. “It worked as planned,” he says. “But the plan itself was to adjust to a slightly changing, unpredictable future.” The rambling end result avoids overt manipulation for the most part, reveling in the messiness of the real world. Mason’s life doesn’t follow a clear narrative arc, so the film isn’t neatly structured. A few moments of plot poke their head up here and there, but generally, Boyhood is as broad and unforced as its title suggests.
“I didn’t know exactly who Ellar was going to become, but I had my hunches,” Linklater says. Mason’s life doesn’t mirror Coltrane’s, but Linklater says the character does embody “the spirit of Ellar.” Initially, Linklater thought Coltrane would likely grow up to join a band—not an unusual fate for an Austin resident—but as he took an interest in visual art and photography instead, Linklater changed Mason’s character to reflect that. “Had it been neither, I might’ve had him be a writer,” Linklater says, “but the photography thing I like most, because I was taking pictures at that age.”
Here, Linklater taps into the experience of the viewer, too: It’s impossible to watch Mason’s journey on screen without comparing it to our own. When a teenaged, art-loving Mason mentions that Paul McCartney is his favorite Beatle, I thought, “Impossible. Teenagers always love John the best.” But according to Linklater, both he and Coltrane preferred McCartney at that age. It’s touches like that—odd specificities—that make the character of Mason a real, living presence.
Not that the other actors don’t play their parts. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are fantastic as Mason’s estranged parents, and Lorelei Linklater (Richard’s daughter) is an entirely convincing older sister. Hawke’s performance in particular is remarkably consistent over the years, pitting a slow, subtle maturation against Mason’s big life changes. Mason Sr. begins as a muscle-car enthusiast who loves his kids but struggles with the responsibility of parenthood; he ends up an emotionally balanced minivan owner. Arquette’s character changes more abruptly, cycling through inept husbands and shouldering the weight of parenting while returning to school. The pair provides a wide framework, both tempermentally and chronologically, for Mason to fill with constant growth and quiet introspection.
By its nature, the tale is not perfectly told, and momentary dips into period-piece nostalgia sometimes distract (the soundtrack provides contemporaneous hits as chronological markers more often than necessary), but it’s about as close to a naturalistic account of real life as cinema gets. There are no titles or stark demarcations when one year transitions to the next; time simply flows with its own rhythm. “Nothing in the film could feel like there was any authorial hand,” says Linklater. “Even a score—I tried some music…but it felt like there was someone making the film. It’s got to feel like you’re just in their world. It has to not feel like a construct.”
The film doesn’t adhere to a three-act structure, and there’s no traditional conflict or high-stakes payoff. Linklater de-emphasized narrative, he says, to strip away any barriers between the characters and the viewer. “I knew if I could do that consistently, you would find your way into this family and care about these people. This collection of these intimate little moments would add up, and the cumulative effect of that would be something similar to what you felt about your own life: a bunch of little moments that are hard to describe but that allow you to be right here—and that’s pretty powerful.”
Boyhood is now showing at E Street Cinema.