There's a scene near the end of Richard Linklater's remarkable Boyhood that brings home the film's cumulative emotional impact. A mother (Patricia Arquette) is sending her youngest (Ellar Coltrane) off to college and facing an empty nest. She breaks down, then lashes out: What happened to her life, her dreams? How could both her kids be grown up?
As the magnificent Arquette lets loose, we feel the brunt of her pain, because we feel like we've been there every step of the way.
In a sense we have. For 12 years, Linklater shot a linear story with the same cast, encompassing the hopes, fears and gloriously mundane passages of an early 21st-century Texas family. We see Mason (Coltrane) age before our eyes, from 5 to 18. The result is a loosely worn wonder, as close a facsimile to lived life as I've ever seen in a narrative film. If the title weren't already taken for the Roger Ebert documentary, Boyhood could be called Life Itself.
To say Boyhood wouldn't be that special if it were shot in a conventional manner is kind of like saying that elephant in the zoo wouldn't be so big if it weren't so big. When you see Mason enter junior high school, you gasp with recognition: Good lord, did he get tall all of a sudden. Boyhood overflows with such moments, but they're never stunts. In steering his characters and cast through more than a decade of setbacks and triumphs, musical trends and fashion statements, Linklater climbs into the mechanism of time and somehow condenses it and stretches it.
Linklater has always had a thing for the gift of gab and the passage of time, from the rotoscoped philosophical musings of Waking Life to the epically intimate trilogy of Before movies. But his vision has never felt as organically grounded as it does here. The magic is seamless. There's no onscreen text to tell us what year we're in; snatches of dialogue, current events and the shifting pop culture landscape, from Britney Spears to Lady Gaga, clue us in.
The movie's time capsule moments can be unintentionally funny: Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) takes the kids (Coltrane and Linklater's daughter, Lorelei) to an Astros game and marvels at Roger Clemens' defiance of Father Time. But the scene wasn't some kind of in-joke when it was shot; the allegations about performance-enhancing drugs hadn't yet surfaced. Only time could tell. (Well, maybe some of us assumed it back then.)
In other words, it feels like a spontaneous moment, the kind that gives Boyhood its quiet but deeply felt spiritual credo. Many of the story's big life events, including marriages and divorces, take place off-screen. Characters enter and exit. (Dallas actor Brad Hawkins gets a longer stint than most as a dad stand-in.)
It's the small stuff that Linklater holds sacred and uses to show us that no moment is really small. It's no accident that the carefully chosen soundtrack includes the Flaming Lips' "Do You Realize??," which reminds us "everyone you know someday will die." Like that song, Boyhood gracefully reminds us to inhabit every single moment before it fades into the next.
Directed by Richard Linklater. R (language including sexual references, and for teen drug use and alcohol use). 166 mins. At the Landmark Magnolia and Angelika Plano.