The process behind the creation of "Boyhood," the remarkable new film from director Richard Linklater, is nearly as extraordinary as the film itself. Assembling his cast for a few days at a time, the film's shoot lasted for a total of 45 days, but those days were spread out over the course of 12 years -- from 2002 through 2013. Linklater's method lends authenticity to his sprawling coming-of-age tale, allowing the actors to age in real time as the story progresses.
The film chronicles the childhood and adolescence of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane). A child of divorce, Mason lives with his mother, Olivia (a fantastic Patricia Arquette), and older sister, Samantha (played by the director's own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, in a scene-stealing performance). Though the children live with their mother, they split their time with visits from their free-spirited, ne'er-do-well father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). We follow Mason from the age of 6 to 18, ending as the boy -- by then a young man -- heads off to college.
Similarly ambitious filmmaking experiments have been attempted before; Michael Apted's "Up" series of documentaries has followed the same group of British school children since they were 7 years old, the Harry Potter films allowed audiences to see its characters grow from school children into adulthood, and long-running television shows allow us to grow with the characters we tune in to see each week. Linklater himself has documented the course of one romantic relationship by revisiting the couple every 9 years, in his wonderful "Before" trilogy. In one charming moment, the director even seems to reference those films, as an 8th grade Mason spends a scene walking and talking alongside a particularly opinionated female classmate on a bike. But what differentiates "Boyhood" from those other endeavors is the way it condenses an entire childhood into a single narrative, to profoundly moving effect.
Linkler uses jump cuts to propel us forward, a year at a time. The method is simultaneously jarring and seamless; it's not until a few moments into a new scene that we notice the actors are now slightly older. By progressing this way, the director manages to duplicate the inexorable forward march of time and the way we tend not to notice until suddenly we do. At times we're left to fill in the gaps; occasionally characters have disappeared, or the family is now living in a different house. People float in and out of the character's lives -- sometimes with much heartache and sometimes with a sad indifference. Along the way, we're allowed to track the progress of time through changing technology, pop culture, and the music that makes up the soundtrack to Mason's life.
Working with two cinematographers, Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, along with editor Sandra Adair, Linklater assembles the mundane, unremarkable moments that add up to the entire breadth of a childhood. Linklater isn't interested in the "big" moments; after all, life is really made up of the things that happen in between. It's telling that when Olivia breaks down just prior to Mason leaving home toward the film's end, she rattles off a series of milestones from Mason's life, all of which occurred off-screen. Even this life that appears to have been so thoroughly documented refuses to be contained within the confines of the film.
Only once does "Boyhood" veer toward melodrama, when Olivia remarries and her new husband gradually reveals himself to be an abusive alcoholic. This section is so packed with incident that it seems incongruous from everything else that comes before or after, though I suppose that's also the pattern life works in. Still, in a movie filled with complicated characters, the stepfather's one-note nature seems lazy. He's only one of a string of father figures (or, as Mason later describes them, an "endless parade of drunken assholes") that parade through Mason's life. Through them, the film seems to offer a critique on the very idea of manhood and masculinity.
It was a huge gamble to craft a film (especially one as ambitious as this) around a 6-year-old actor. Linklater had no idea what kind of person the boy would turn out to be, or if the kid would even want to continue with the project over the course of 12 years. The director seems to have lucked out with Coltrane. The actor is effective in the role, often quite good, but it's difficult to gauge how much of Mason Jr. is him and how much is performance. Even more incredible is how much Coltrane comes to resemble Ethan Hawke as he grows older.
There's a cumulative power to the film; by the time Mason is driving off toward college and adulthood, I felt a wave of emotion wash over me. Over the course of the film's just under three-hour run time, we become invested in what happens to these characters. We've watched Mason -- and his entire family, really -- grow up. By the time the credits roll they don't feel like characters, but real people we've come to know. With "Boyhood," Richard Linklater attempts to capture the meaning of it all. He's crafted a warm, deeply humane film that's both as intimate and monumental as life itself.