The genius of Richard Linklater's movie, Boyhood, is that it could just as easily be called Motherhood, Adulthood or Personhood.
Boyhood was shot in brief spurts over the course of nearly a dozen years, so its characters — all members of a Texas family — age in front of our eyes.
The one who transforms most astonishingly is Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane), who is a baby-faced 7-year-old as the movie begins and a lean, earringed young man in his first days of college by the end.
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But the years also register on the faces of his older sister (played by Linklater's real-life daughter, Lorelai) and parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) in a movie whose subjects include time.
How to Feel the Fullness of Time
"I hit 50 and realized I'm probably past the 50-yard-line, and I started to think that time is all we're given in this life, the hours and what we do with them," the director told The Los Angeles Times. "It sounds simple, but it's true, and it makes you realize that you have to pick the areas in your life that cause time to stop, that make you feel the fullness of the moment. Art can do that. Movies can do that. I mean, the best time exchange is a movie. You watch three hours and you get a lifetime, concentrated."
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Linklater told Next Avenue that was his pitch to potential funders: "We're going to experience this American family, this one boy in particular. We're going to go off to college, the mom will get remarried, the dad will rededicate himself to being a parent, the daughter will do her thing. And you'll get to have it all in one sitting."
The effect is a little like watching other people's lives flashing before your eyes. But it feels like Boyhood proceeds at the pace of real lives, because Linklater doesn't focus on big moments such as the loss of virginity or the day a marriage ends.
Instead, he chooses tiny bits of humanity: a mom yelling at one kid for forgetting to pick the other up after school, a dad trying to regain a miffed child's favor with a cheesy gift, a random encounter in an adult-education class.
The sensation of watching so much living from a movie chair is likely to be familiar to any parent who has woken up on the day her child was about to move out and thought, "Those 20 years seem like they passed by in a minute."
Beauty and Heartbreak
For many years, Linklater — best known for School of Rock and the Before Sunrise trilogy of movies about a couple over the course of two decades — wanted to make a movie about growing up. But he could never figure a way to do it that hadn't been done a million times by a million Catcher in the Rye imitators.
One key to finding a way was to think about growing up not just from the vantage point of a kid, but also a parent.
"There's something about being a parent. It fills up your life for so long and then it ends," says the director, who is 53. "Having been through it, it's additive in the best way and a little deductive, too. Being a parent dredges up things in your life. Yeah. Beautiful things and heartbreaking things. You end up with both."
The hope was that the movie would also end up with both.
"I got to thinking as a storyteller that there was a film there, a film about growing up, but I couldn't pick my spot and had given up on the idea until — Boom! — the big idea hit me," says Linklater. "I had never seen a movie like that, with a little of it filmed every year."
Narrative and Honesty
It's no surprise that the timeframe idea instantly appealed to Linklater, who has made at least four films that each took place on a single day and who has often been attracted to the concept of time.
"I mean, it's the basis of cinema. It's what makes it unique. I've spent my whole adult life thinking about narrative, and I've done other films with time as sort of a structuring device," says Linklater.
"That's the way it is in all our lives. To me, it's more honest or realistic to think of time as a guide to how we process the world. Humans created the notions of hours and seconds and millennia because we needed them to figure out our world. So, to me, that's a more honest basis for a movie than a lot of trumped-up plot elements."
Becoming More Yourself
Nothing in Boyhood feels trumped-up. In fact, one thing that sometimes gets lost in discussions of the movie is that Arquette and Hawke also change considerably, even if their transformations are not quite as huge as Coltrane's.
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When Linklater talks about working with Coltrane and how that affected the character of Mason, he talks about how both the actor and the character became more themselves as they matured. That's equally true of the Arquette and Hawke characters.
As the film progresses, both become visibly more comfortable in their own skins and less interested in what others think about them. It's a process that seems to be happening to the actors as well as to their characters in a fictional film that often feels like a documentary.
Boyhood seems likely to work on audiences that way, too.
Whatever age you are, it's a movie with the power to make you think about where you're going and where you've been. In fact, Linklater says even the actors got lost in the thrill of seeing their younger selves reflected in their current selves, and vice versa.
"I remember in January, at Sundance (the Sundance Film Festival), Ethan kept saying, 'Hey, man, I'm going to a movie where I'm 32 and I'm driving a GTO,'" says Linklater. "And finally I told him, 'Yeah, but don't forget that at the end you're 44, and you have a bad mustache and a minivan."
Chris Hewitt is a movie and theater critic who has written for MSNBC.com, Today.com and The History Channel magazine and whose reviews have run in newspapers across the country.
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