Richard Linklater's unhurried, uncannily simple tale of an American teenager growing up has touched a chord with audiences and critics since it was unveiled at Sundance last January. In large part, this has been helped by its unwitting counter-programming: in an age where major studios seem interested in peddling big visual effects fantasies and are reluctant to engage in smaller-scale (and often more lucrative) dramas, a three-hour film where nothing much happens except people going about their lives seems a much more radical proposition than it actually is.
But that sense of looking at normal lives has always been at the heart of Mr. Linklater's work, making him one of the truest heirs of the possibility-rich "new Hollywood" of the 1970s, as well as a director very much of his time in the way that his most formally inventive works have meshed documentary and fiction (Bernie comes to mind). And that is where the "gimmick" that underlies Boyhood kicks in. To be fair, it's not a gimmick (hence the quote marks), but a device woven into the project's own fabric: the film was shot in real time over 12 years, with a set cast and crew reconvening for a few days every year to enact the "growing pains" of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), the youngest son of divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke).
Michael Apted's Ups series of television documentaries, dropping in every seven years on a cross-section of British kids to see what has become of them and how life has changed them, may be a reference point thematically. Another is Mr. Linklater's own trilogy of Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, which followed the development of the romance between Julie Delpy and Mr. Hawke at regular intervals.
But, here, the passage of time has a whole other effect, as there is no "interval". Whereas the Before films were all about taking stock of people at different steps in their lives, Boyhood compresses those steps into a single dramatic, narrative structure that follows Mason from first through to 12th grade. It becomes a time capsule of the period during which it was shot, but its fleeting references to the Iraq war, Barack Obama's election and the economic recession never overpower the essence of the film: the sense of a life being lived in real time, its poignancy and emotion born from the progressive accumulation of episodes and vignettes that might have seemed trite or banal on their own
That sense of passing time is usually something Hollywood is pretty good at recreating within the confined strictures of a family saga shot on studio sets in a compressed time frame, but Mr. Linklater's protracted shoot gives it a whole other edge. There's no prosthetic make-up or substituted actors, and nobody has any qualms about showing their age on screen, making Boyhood as much a fictional construct as it can be a documentary on the passage of time; that surfeit of "reality", combined with the film's loose scripting, gives it a charming, casual modesty that is utterly refreshing in these days of bombast. It's a whole other meaning - and a much better one - for the word "accumulation".
For all that, there can be a sense that Boyhood is a "film about nothing", just as Seinfeld was a "sitcom about nothing". Mr. Linklater is not above asking that same question himself; Mr. Coltrane, just six years old when the shoot began and 19 by its end, can often seem a purely reactive, passive presence in the film (though it very much reflects Mason's own process growing up), and Ms. Arquette, towards the end of the film, articulates that same question when Mason is about to head for college and she says "I just thought there would be more". But that assumes, in a way, that raising a child wasn't enough per se, and Boyhood has by then disproved her disappointment by showing just how every small action, for better or for worse, has an impact as time goes by.
Admittedly, the impact of the film itself may be blunted if you see it without knowing it was shot over 12 years (to his credit, Mr. Linklater does not call attention to it at all in the film, as there are no on-screen captions, letting the physical changes explain what needs to be explained). But that does not underline or nullify its concept or its approach, and you can still enjoy the simple story at the heart of Boyhood: that of a young boy growing up in public. As we all do.
Cast Patricia Arquette, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke
Director and screenwriter Richard Linklater; cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly (colour); designer Rodney Becker; costumes Kari Perkins; editor Sandra Adair; producers Mr. Linklater, Cathleen Sutherland, Jonathan Sehring e John Sloss; production companies IFC Productions and Detour Filmproduction
Screened February 13th 2014, Berlinale Palast, Berlin (Berlinale 2014 official competition press screening), and November 19th 2014, NOS Alvaláxia 1, Lisbon (distributor advance press screening)