American auteur Richard Linklater is on a noble, if impossible, mission: to distil the vagaries of human existence into cinema. Thus Bernie (2011) retold a tricksy true-crime story mixing non-actors with Hollywood stars, and its real-life subject (played by Jack Black onscreen) came to live in the director’s apartment as part of his bail conditions. Waking Life (2001), meanwhile, tried to capture the peculiar flux and fragility of dreams. And the Before Sunrise trilogy (1995-2013) detailed two kindred spirits’ attempts to boff each other over the course of two entire decades.
Even in such meta company, Boyhood takes the (birthday) cake. Filmed once a year for 12 years with a recurring cast, it follows young Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood to adulthood, and represents a genuine coming-of-age drama. Though the project is colossal, the focus is small: there are no car crashes, no world-shaking revelations, just snapshots of the formative moments that add up to a life. Linklater regular Ethan Hawke, who plays Mason Sr, calls it “time-lapse photography of a human being”, and that’s exactly what it feels like.
We first meet Mason as a five-year-old child with an annoying older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), a harassed single mum (Patricia Arquette), and an unreliable dad (Hawke). Over the course of the next 166 minutes we watch him move house (several times), change schools, have his haircut, get – and lose – new, varyingly inappropriate stepfathers, discover girls and beer, fall in love, get dumped, go off to college, and generally find his way in the world.
But just as our own memories can be the most unreliable of narrators, forgetting the facts but clinging on to abstract sensations and emotions, Boyhood can’t be boiled down to a simple synopsis. Though the events depicted onscreen are strictly fictional, there’s no getting away from the fact that we’re watching a real person growing, changing and assimilating; the little triumphs and disappointments that make us who we are.
Extraordinary in form, ‘ordinary’ in content, Boyhood is ambitious, intimate and unforgettable. It might just be the apex of Linklater’s life’s work.