As time goes by
Boyhood, drama, rated R, Center for Contemporary Arts, 4 chiles The older you get, the more apt you are to have uttered the words, “It’s all gone by so fast!” Well, as it turns out, you don’t have to be all that old. For 18-year-old Mason, it takes about two and a half hours of screen time to morph from the hazy, lazy summer days of round-cheeked early childhood to the anxieties and sky’s-the-limit possibilities of a stubbly-jawed young man leaving the nest to enter college. Richard Linklater’s extraordinary achievement has been to take one boy, a 6-year-old named Ellar Coltrane, and to put all his chips on that boy growing to three times his age without anything terrible happening to him, emotionally or physically, to scuttle the project. That gamble gets multiplied when you add in the rest of the core cast, a sister played by the director’s daughter, Lorelei, and parents played by veteran actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. Linklater gathered his cast in the summer of 2002 and rolled the dice.
He shot for a few days every year — 39 days over a dozen of them — writing each year’s screenplay segment based on talks with his cast as well as on his own experiences and imagination. In that respect the film’s process is not unlike the collaborative one that shaped his Before Sunrise trilogy, which follows a couple played by Hawke and Julie Delpy at 10-year intervals. Linklater is a director who doesn’t mind taking his time. Of course, none of this would be worth the sand in an hourglass if it were no more than a gimmick. But Linklater pays it off with patience and consummate artistry. The scenes he strings together are not the dramatic fireworks of most movie fiction but the moments in life that slip by almost unnoticed — the life, as John Lennon’s lyrics had it, that “happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
A lot of those plans are made by Mason’s mom, Olivia, beautifully played by Arquette, who takes her time as well, and makes the most of that. It’s a tool few actors get to use; she’s not only playing older by the movie’s end, she is older. We see her first as a young Texas mother trying to cope with adulthood and motherhood and making real-world choices. Some of those choices are good, some not so good, and in that second column are the men to whom she hitches her wagon. The first of these was the kids’ father, Mason Sr., whom Hawke plays as a cheerful, likable, slow-maturing good-time guy. He’s out of the marital picture by the time we pick up the story, but he still does his best to be a hands-on dad when he gets the chance. The next two men in Olivia’s life are more substantial in some ways, more disastrous in others. Some of her better decisions involve going back to school and shaping a career for herself in teaching. As her hair changes and her body adds a pound or two, she wrestles with the realities of raising a couple of kids and finding her path through a world that doesn’t allow any do-overs. Hawke changes too, more reluctantly, but pulled by the same inexorable, invisible gravity of the passage of time. Clothes change and cars change. He takes the kids to ball games and bowling alleys, discusses the birds and the bees, and tries his best to be relevant. He starts a new family. Life goes on.
There has never been anything quite like this movie. A few directors have played with the passage of time in film, notably Linklater himself in his aforementioned trilogy and François Truffaut in his series that introduced a 14-year-old Jean-Pierre Léaud as Antoine Doinel in The 400 Blows and revisited him in three features and a short over a 20-year period. Michael Apted staked out some of this ground in a documentary series that began in 1964 as a TV movie about a group of British 7-year-olds called Seven Up! and that has followed and filmed the same group every seven years, most recently with 56 Up in 2012. (Apted was a researcher on the initial project and has directed the series ever since then.) Perhaps an even more pertinent comparison is Alexander Sokurov’s remarkable Russian Ark, an elaborate costumed trip through 300 years of Russian history composed in a single, unbroken 95-minute take, in which the stakes rise to knuckle-biting tension as the film reaches its last stages with the knowledge than one misstep could quash the whole thing.
So, spoiler alert: Mason grows up and makes it safely through boyhood adventures and discoveries, as his limbs lengthen, his cheeks hollow, his mind grows, his heart breaks and mends, and he arrives on the brink of young adulthood at the movie’s end. It’s not just the fact that a dozen real years pass and that Linklater holds the whole thing together. It’s the way it happens, the way he tells the story. It’s a life.
In the blink of an eye: Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke