Understandably, there’s been a lot of attention on filmmaker Richard Linklater and the long path to his new film, Boyhood. Stories have covered the logistics of filming a story in small bursts over the course of twelve years or focused specifically on the casting of his daughter in a key supporting role. As always, there’s a certain amount of promotional puffery in these various pieces, tinged in this instance with a slightly overcompensatory marveling at the prolonged patience of Linklater’s technique. Do a little digging and revelatory details can emerge, those that truly illuminate the stunning artist of the film. For me, it’s the small fact that Linklater apparently toyed with calling the film “Always Now.” As Nathan Heller explained in his very fine profile of the director in The New Yorker, “But then it struck Linklater that many Richard Linklater movies could be called ‘Always Now.'”
In that discarded title that can serve as the mission statement to Linklater’s oeuvre lies the remarkable accomplishment of Boyhood, the stirring result that could only be generated through the creative tactic employed by Linklater. The movie creates retrospect by dealing relentlessly with the now, evokes nostalgia through capturing moments as they happen rather that conjuring them up later. Linklater and his collaborators (and his trademark inclusive style means he has a small legion of true collaborators) didn’t work through a backstory to explain any part of the characters’ lives or some detail in their shared story. The found it and made it as it happened, brick by brick and shard by shard. There is slimmest indication of conventional plot, an act of particular daring given a running time that pushes three hours. And yet it is full of story, to the point of sloshing it over the sides. There are understated encounters and moments of high drama, with these widely different experiences sometimes occurring simultaneously. Boyhood is the memory of growing up, capturing and contained like fireflies in a jar. The instance that burns itself into the mind could be a bathroom encounter with bullies that has no real lasting repercussions or the hurled glass that represents the destruction of a family unit. In the clamor of history, these disparate tones echo with equal resonance. It’s life imprinting on film.
Wisely, wonderfully, Linklater largely refrains from calling attention to his structure. There is no explanatory note, no helpful “one year later” graphics or explicit dates on the screen. There are signifiers to be sure — Obama signs, video games and toys, Roger Clemens pitching before an adoring crowd — but none of them are presented with a knowing wink. They are the fabric of the times when scenes were filmed, not artifacts inserted to give the audience their collective chronological footing. It is a perfect expression of Linklater’s artistic desire to observe truth rather than score points or hit certain beats, no matter how satisfying they might be. Similarly, a lot of filmmakers would have taken the end of the film as cause to circle back and show recap images of how the actors have aged, even if only to accompany their names in the closing credits. Linklater forgoes that, probably recognizing that it would have helped shift his storytelling from a fascination with humanity to a celebration of gimmickry.
Ellar Coltrane, the actor cast as a boy who completed the movie as a young man, is exceptional in the leading role, even if he has the notable and practically unprecedented advantage of letting the performance emerge along with his own sense of self. He’s expectedly natural and unfussy in the early portion of the movie, developing a gently bemused philosopher mentality that recalls Linklater’s own appearance in his 1991 film, Slacker. He’s surrounded by other actors who often lean towards the appealingly unpracticed, always a quality Linklater seeks out. The one other cast member who truly excels is Patricia Arquette, whose character is notably named as only “Mom” in the closing credits. If the film is primarily concerned with the childhood named in the title, Arquette offers an often painful glimpse at adulthood, with pleasures that are often only fleeting and disappointments that loom so much larger because of the lost time they represent. It may be “always now” when one is in the throes of youth. Eventually, the “now” seems to be constantly slipping away. That’s simply one of countless truth contained in Linklater’s film. Boyhood is the reason I see movies. Because, to be as direct as I can, there are few things quite as thrilling as discovering a new cinematic masterpiece.