When we think back on our childhoods, what comes to mind is not a linear narrative but vivid moments out of a disjointed dream: riding a bike around with the neighborhood kids, being humiliated on the playground, walking into school with a new haircut. Boyhood, filmed over 12 years with the same actors, follows the waking dream moments of Mason, from age 6 to 18.
Watching Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, grow up is a wonder in itself, and director Richard Linklater makes sure we see all the acne, bad haircuts, and misfitting clothes along the way. Seeing Mason’s parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) age and change is just as fascinating. Linklater makes the film more evocative by placing it in real time, between news about Iraq and the kids going costumed to the midnight book release of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince. The songs on the soundtrack too follow the particular era of Mason/Ellar’s life, going from Blink 182 to Arcade Fire.
Even though Mason has a story unique to himself, viewers will think, Yes, that’s what childhood was like. There’s the fake-crying sibling, the pillow barrier on road trips, the chores, the moment a parent snaps, the self-important conversations about life as a high schooler. (Boyhood is rated R for language and teenage explorations of sex, drugs, and booze.) The politics are one-sided—the dad tells the kids to vote for “anyone but Bush”—but this resonates too, since children typically grow up believing the politics of their parents. As the dad ages, he marries a Christian woman, and they take Mason and Samantha to church. Christianity isn’t embraced, but it isn’t mocked either.
David Foster Wallace, in his essay “E Unibus Pluram,” critiqued the fast-cutting tropes of television (and movies) that are “unsubtle in their whispers that, somewhere, life is quicker, denser, more interesting.” Linklater offers a dose of realism. “I just thought there would be more,” the mom weeps as Mason leaves for college. If you think watching a boy grow up is boring, then real life is boring.