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July 31, 2014

Boyhood and real time

Boyhood, Ellar Coltrane

Richard Linklater has covered a lot of ground in his filmography, many different styles, genres, and time periods, but one thing his movies are not is rushed. He typically lets his stories meander along and unroll at their own pace, with plenty of time for characters to hang out and talk and talk and talk. If there's a theme he often returns to, it's shooting movies in something close to real time--Slacker, Dazed and Confused, each of the movies in the Before trilogy, Tape, and whatever the hell is going on with time, space, and reality in Waking Life.

So Boyhood, which covers 12 years of small but significant moments in a kid's life in just under 3 hours, seems like it would be a departure for Linklater, blasting through the years at a breakneck pace. But one of the things I love about this movie is how slow and easy it feels. There's nothing in the movie to clearly signal that we've moved forward in time, no "One Year Later" captions, or a few frames of black screen. The movie slides ahead a year with nothing but contextual clues to indicate it. If it wasn't for hairstyle changes, new sets, and the almost imperceptible aging of the actors, we might not even realize it was happening.

Which of course is how we all experience moving through time. As in all Linklater movies, the characters have a lot of philosophical musings that are often circular and logically hazy, but still endearing and fun to watch. I think of them as Freshman Dorm conversations. During one of these musings, Mason says something like, we're all living in a new reality each moment, all the time. In an interview about the movie, Linklater says, "Time is actually the lead character in the film," which is sort of annoying and trite, but also accurate, and I'm sure he meant it totally sincerely.

We in the audience watch Mason and his family move through their lives, and sometimes barely notice the changes they're going through. Most of the major plot points happen off screen. It's the cumulative effect of those changes that suddenly hit you, like seeing how confident and sure of herself Patricia Arquette has become, and how much more considerate Ethan Hawke eventually is. And how Mason grows from a little boy into a sullen kid into an artist and an adult. It's a real strength of the writing that these character developments feel the way real people grow and change, and never magically appear as new traits that exist to serve the plot. We only have something like 15 minutes to catch up with everyone each year, and Linklater quietly packs a lot into each year. With only one viewing, I couldn't say when the jumps ahead in time even happened.

But they do happen, and Mason grows up. My own baby turns one next week. Time flies.

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