Richard Linklater spent more than a decade filming his new movie Boyhood:
[I]n 2001, a few years after his eldest daughter started elementary school, he felt compelled to make a movie about growing up. But focusing on any one facet of the passage through youth would require “trumping something up”—exactly the opposite of what worked in his unfussy observational classics Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise. So, long interested in research like the famous Grant Study, which has tracked 268 Harvard students’ development over 76 years, he devised a longitudinal method: film a single child actor for a few days each year for more than a decade, resulting in a fictional coming-of-age story whose star actually comes of age onscreen.
In a rave review, Dana Stevens looks back at Boyhood‘s cinematic precursors:
I can think of few feature films in the history of the medium that have explored the power, and the melancholy, of film’s intimate enmeshment with time in the way Richard Linklater’s Boyhood does.
There’s François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel series, in which we watch that character, a truant kid played by Truffaut’s onscreen proxy and eventual quasi-adopted son Jean-Pierre Léaud, age from around 12 to around 32. But since those five films were made over a period of 20 years, the shock of watching Léaud grow up comes at us serially, in chunks. Michael Apted’s extraordinary Up documentaries, which check in every seven years on the progress of the lives of a group of British schoolchildren first filmed in 1964, are even more widely spaced; visiting each new installment is like attending a family reunion, wondering who will show up and what condition he or she will be in.
Like Stevens, Chloe Schama finds the film a “carefully calibrated, subtle exploration of the various textures of different ages and the passage of time”:
It’s hard to write about this theme – and probably much harder to make a film about it. The subject lends itself to hazy, dorm-room theorizing of a particularly cringe-inducing variety. But the film seems self-conscious of its pretensions. Yes, it opens with a dreamy shot of young Mason lying in the grass while Chris Martin croons “Look at the stars, look how they shine for you …” And it ends with a conversation between Mason and an implied new love interest about the true meaning of “carpe diem.” It’s like, the girl says, the reverse: “the moment seizes us.” Yeah, Mason agrees: “It’s always right now.”
But these awkward articulations of the philosophical undertones of the film seem almost tongue-in-cheek, and they’re not so prevalent as to become oppressive. The point here seems to be that college freshman Mason is not much more enlightened about the funny tricks of time than his wistful six-year-old self, but there is beauty in his attempts to approach some insight on the matter.
Praising the film as a “masterpiece,” Marlow Stern marvels at how the scriptwriting process came together:
Linklater began the project with a skeleton of sorts. He had each character’s main plot points mapped out, and knew how the film would end—as well as its final shot—at conception. According to Linklater, he’d watch and edit the footage he’d shot from the previous year several times before starting an outline, which would later evolve into a script, for the following year. Sometimes, the script wouldn’t fully materialize until a few days before shooting.
“I got to watch my film, think for a year, and re-script it,” says Linklater. “I could never re-shoot anything, but could re-script it, which is where I’d incorporate the incremental changes of my four actors growing and changing, and where I could adjust any ideas I had to the reality in front of me.”
The actors filled in the free-form “unconventional script” with their own life experiences. Linklater and Hawke based the latter’s character on their fathers, since both men were Texan insurance agents who found happiness in their second marriage. Arquette based her character heavily on her mother who, like her character in the film, went back to school, got her degree, and became a psychiatrist. Ellar, meanwhile, seemed to gain more and more confidence in his acting ability as the “living project” progressed, and it shows onscreen.
In an interview, Ellar Coltrane talks about what it’s like to watch that process play back now that the movie is finished:
[M]y experience with it changes every time I watch it, really. I watched it a couple of weeks ago and it was so different from the first time I watched it. … [W]here the film ends is more or less—especially the first time I watched it—where I am in my life. It’s exactly where Mason is in that last scene. I was going through that emotional change and that process. So it was very super fresh, and every time I watch it I’m getting a little farther away from the film and from where the character is at the end. So I can’t imagine in 10 years, but I’ll always have it. And it’s comforting to know that I’ll always have this thing to watch at any point in my life and just remind myself.
The movie isn’t as Here Comes the Big Cry as the trailer and the concept would make you think; it’s far too smart and wise for that. Yet I still bet it makes you bawl your head off. Boyhood comes as close as capturing actual human existence as any film I’ve ever seen. It will feel like you have watched a full life, fully lived. And the best part: As the film ends, Mason’s life is only beginning. Everyone’s always is.