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In Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, time fades away

Made over more than a decade, this is a film that reminds us life is seen by children from a different angle.

Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his father (Ethan Hawke) in Linklater’s family drama.
Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his father (Ethan Hawke) in Linklater’s family drama.

Boyhood (15)
dir: Richard Linklater

Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s new film, though in another sense it’s also Richard Linklater’s old film. The prolific 53-year-old director set aside a month each year from 2002 to 2013 to shoot it piecemeal in between the other pictures he was making (among them School of Rock and A Scanner Darkly). The cast of Boyhood remained intact and can now be seen to age before our eyes, thanks to that most special of effects: time. It’s a shame in a project of this nature to find that one particular opportunity for product placement was passed up. When a character brandishes a jumbo bottle of fizzy drink, it feels almost perverse for it to be Sprite when that beverage is so similar to another that shares its name with the film’s main antecedent – the British television documentaries, still ongoing, which began with Seven Up! in 1964.

The pioneering Up project has called in on its subjects’ lives every seven years since then. No maker of fiction could hope to equal that endeavour but Linklater has come closest. (Michael Winterbottom’s 2012 film Everyday tried the same trick over five years – what a lightweight!) Long before Boyhood, he was picking apart the cogs and clock springs of time. When someone in his 1991 film Slacker apologises for being late, a woman replies: “That’s OK. Time doesn’t exist.” (It really didn’t in his 2001 animation Waking Life, set in one man’s subconscious.) That his characters tend to be college kids, dreamers and doofuses should not distract us from noticing that he is continuing the temporal experiments of Nicolas Roeg or Alain Resnais – that he has made his Don’t Look Now, Dude or his Last Beer at Marienbad.

Linklater’s Before trilogy (which culminated in 2013 with Before Midnight) tracked a romantic relationship at nine-year intervals. Boyhood is more compressed. It distils the youth of the blearily blue-eyed Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who lives in Texas with his sister, Samantha (played by the director’s daughter, Lorelei Linklater), and their mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette). The picture reminds us that life is seen by children from a different angle and not only because they’re closer to the ground. Watching the cryptic emotional transactions between their estranged parents from the bedroom window (Ethan Hawke plays their father), Mason and Samantha pass back and forth a pair of dinky yellow binoculars like anthropologists observing an alien species. In the first scene, Mason is six, burbling from the back seat in his dreamy-insistent way as Olivia drives him home from school. Nearly three hours later, he is 18, behind the wheel himself, heading to college. What occurs in between is both prosaic and profound: nothing at all and yet everything there is.

Time passes wordlessly through haircuts, music, models of computer. Understatement is paramount. When the family has to decamp to another part of Texas in a hurry, Olivia warns her children: “Don’t look back!” That could be Linklater speaking. Diversions into sentimentality or irony are rare. One amusing exception occurs when Mason and his father decide that there won’t be any more additions to the Star Wars series (cue our rueful laughter: Episode VII has since gone into production). The past is generally given short shrift. When one of Mason’s friends pedals after the family as they drive out of town for good, the car easily out-speeds him. He shrinks into the distance and is gone.

Boyhood wears its process lightly but the artistic gains are felt in every frame. There’s a crisp visual metaphor for this during a long, unbroken take showing Mason walking with a school friend. Throughout their conversation, the ground they have covered is always visible over their shoulders: we can see at every point how far they have come.

It is difficult to imagine after this movie how any film-maker can resort to the conventions of multi-decade storytelling – ageing make-up, dusty wigs – without appearing unforgivably lazy. Steven Soderbergh came up with a poignant innovation in his 1999 thriller The Limey: any flashbacks to the salad days of Terence Stamp were scenes from Ken Loach’s Poor Cow, shot three decades earlier when Stamp didn’t even know what the word “wrinkles” meant. But perhaps the idea of cataloguing time has not been attempted on Boyhood’s scale because it’s already something that film evokes effortlessly. Actors age from one movie to the next, with exceptions such as Nicole Kidman, whose recent work suggests she is living a one-woman remake of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

Linklater placed a bet with Boyhood – on the potency that might accrue and on his lead actor, whose face sharpens over the course of the movie like a leisurely Polaroid. This isn’t a director who stamps his identity all over a film but the generosity of spirit is identifiably his. Snuggling up to sleep, Mason asks if there is any magic in the world. His father tells him of a creature in the ocean that uses sonar to communicate and has a heart as big as a car and arteries you could crawl through. Mason is nonplussed (“There’s no elves, though?”) but we may file the image alongside the Blue Whale Removal Company that shifts Olivia’s furniture, the deep-sea frieze in Mason’s bedroom and the sparkling lake into which Mason and his father plunge on a camping trip. Almost without us noticing, Boyhood makes the ordinary world magical and miraculous and innumerable fathoms deep.