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Boyhood is the result of a bold film experiment by Richard Linklater. He started filming in 2002, with 7-year-old Ellar Coltrane in the central role. The cast and crew reunited to shoot additional scenes, once a year, for 12 years. The film ends with Mason’s first day in college when Coltrane was 19.

Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays Mason’s sister Samantha. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke play his parents. The actors supposedly collaborated closely with Linklater on the script (though only Linklater is credited).

More important than the story is being able to watch the actors — the children particularly, but Arquette, Hawke, and the supporting actors too as they age in front of your eyes.

Before Boyhood

Coltrane and Hawke, 12 years ago
Coltrane and Hawke, 12 years ago

It’s only fair to mention that Linklater isn’t the first filmmaker to try something like this. Linklater’s own Before trilogy starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy revisits the same characters between 1995 and 2013. Michael Apted’s documentary series that started with 7-Up has revisited the same Brits every 7 years for 49 years running. François Truffaut launched a career with The 400 Blows and followed up with four more films over the next 20 years, each starring Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel.

Perhaps my favorite example is the Harry Potter films — the Potter craze gets a nod in Boyhood when the youngsters attend a release party for the latest Harry Potter book, each one featuring a Harry who is one year older.

Even so, I don’t think anyone has approached the idea with as much determination or intent as Linklater has done here.

A Film of Many Parts

As exciting as the notion is, Boyhood needs to stand on its own as a drama. After the first few year-long shifts, you forget that you are watching an experiment in film and you get lost in the story. And that’s just a little too bad, because stories don’t lend themselves to long, continuous stretches of time. A story has a beginning, an end, and an arc in-between. But life is messy. It doesn’t fit into compartments that easily. And so too with the arc in Boyhood.

It opens with Arquette’s character Liv raising two young kids by herself, getting ready to move to Houston, Texas. Mason senior is not around, off in Alaska so we’re told. We meet him in the next segment when he comes to Houston and takes his kids bowling. There are strong emotions as divorced mom and dad fight for control, and brother and sister fight for attention.

Another segment shows Liv attending school and falling in love with her psychology professor Bill (Marco Perella). Theirs is relationship that doesn’t last, and in fact ends badly. Meanwhile, Mason Jr. and Samantha just keep growing up.

I didn’t count, but I’m pretty sure there are 12 segments, one for each year of filming. You won’t be surprised to hear that the film is episodic and doesn’t have a lot of thematic consistency. There are occasional echoes of earlier scenes that sort-of tie the film together; for example, when Liv finally becomes a psychology professor, we see her teaching a radically different subject than what Bill was teaching. But mostly, this is a film of many parts, and unfortunately, it does drag a bit (it clocks in at 2 hours and 45 minutes).


Here’s a thought experiment: transcribe Boyhood, give the script to a competent director, and cast the same people in the same roles. This time, shoot the film in a more traditional time frame, using makeup and production design to recreate the past (cast competent lookalikes for the younger children). If you were to make that film, you’d say the film was far too long, too episodic, and not very exciting. It would be an average family drama with some highs and lows, but nothing remarkable.

Obviously, the reason to see Boyhood is because of its provenance.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t see it, though. What happens is on-screen is nearly magical. Somehow, human metamorphosis is more interesting than any CGI or special effect.