January 27, 2014



Back when Stanley Kubrick still planned to direct the film that became AI: Artificial Intelligence, he famously toyed with the idea of shooting it bit by bit over a period of years, so that the young protagonist would literally age on screen.  Now Richard Linklater, the most unKubrickian of filmmakers, has done exactly that with BOYHOOD, which he’s been shooting for more than 11 years and which he finally premiered at Sundance.  The effect of on-screen aging isn’t completely unknown on screen:  Michael Apted’s amazing series of Up documentaries have followed the same people from childhood into their 50s, and multi-film franchises like Harry Potter (which Boyhood references several times), Trauffaut’s Antoine Doinel films and Linklater’s own Before trilogy have allowed their characters to age in something like real time over the course of their installments.  (Long-running TV shows, of course, do it all the time.)  But scripting and producing a single fictional film embodying this concept is something new.

At the core of Boyhood is Mason (Ellar Coltrane), whom we meet as a 6-year old and leave when he’s become a college freshman.  He lives in Texas with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and slightly older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter); Olivia is raising her children as a single mother after divorcing their father Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), who when the story begins is a none-too-reliable musician.  Each year, we look in on Mason, Olivia and Samantha, and Mason’s father makes an appearance in most of the years as well, while other characters recur from time to time or come back into the family’s life years after we’d last seen them.

The effect of Boyhood is different from that of a conventional film, and in a way that’s curious, because it’s not as though we haven’t all seen dramas that take place over years and decades, with actors aging through the course of the film.  But seeing it happen in “real life,” without CG or make-up, as the children grow and the older actors’ faces and bodies thicken and become naturally lined, gives it a special, tangible and indeed very personal power.  For Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater (when he cast his own daughter at 7 or 8 years old, Linklater ran the risk of turning the project into an even more embarrassing version of Francis Coppola putting his daughter in The Godfather Part III; Linklater was lucky that his daughter turned out to be an appealing young actress), there is the fascination of seeing children become young adults, their appearances changing as their emotions and knowledge expand and become more complicated.  And in a way, the effect is even more startling when watching Arquette and Hawke, because we see the events of Boyhood through the prism of our knowledge about the rest of their careers, like one of those random moments when you’re switching through cable channels and find movies airing on simultaneous networks with the same actors at the beginning, peak and twilight of their stardom.

There isn’t a single unifying “story” in Boyhood per se;  The narrative ebbs and flows as it moves from year to year; some episodes are relatively elaborate and driven by unquestionably dramatic events (notably the arc of Olivia’s second marriage), while others concern themselves with the mundane minutiae of daily life–new friends, new schools, new interests.  Through the course of 164 minutes (that sounds long, but Boyhood never bores, constituted as it is of a dozen linked short subjects shown back-to-back), it becomes increasingly clear that the real thread of the project is the process of time, and thus life itself–the routes that people take in becoming, and often altering, who they are.

Applying the criteria one would attach to a typical film, Boyhood has flaws.  Although Linklater provides signposts (for one of the years, very literally) of pop culture and politics to let us know when we are, sometimes the transitions aren’t clear.  (However, one of the pop culture conversations has become priceless in a way Linklater couldn’t have anticipated, as father and son discuss a possible Star Wars sequel that didn’t exist when the scene was filmed.)  Some of the characters and ideas have no payoff (as in real life, of course), the tone is perhaps unavoidably uneven (an episode bringing Mason together with his father’s new in-laws late in the game forces its humor) and the final episode is longer and more self-consciously weighty than it needed to be, as though once he knew he was nearing the end, Linklater felt compelled to create a full-fledged mini-movie.

And yet the film has a unique impact that goes beyond those imperfections.  It’s hard to tell what kind of an “actor” Ellar Coltrane is, since here he literally embodies his character, but watching him transform from a child into a man is fascinating.  Boyhood is a document as well as a movie; watching it is like taking part in someone’s living photo album.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."