Richard Linklater's Boyhood is a big movie in all sort of ways, but most of all, in terms of time. Shot over a dozen years and running just over two and a half hours long, it stretches out in that dimension in a way that no other film has, outside of maybe the Up documentary series. In showing 12 years in the life of Mason Jr., an ordinary Texas boy making his way toward young adulthood, it also captures how star Ellar Coltrane and the movie's other cast members change and age, entering teenagerdom or middle age over the course of the film, ending it as both the same and very different people from who they were when it began.
But Boyhood, which opens this Friday in New York and L.A. and in more cities the week after, also brings to mind a six-minute YouTube video. A specific one — "Everyday," in which photographer Noah Kalina took a daily snapshot of himself, and compiled six years of results into a viral sensation. Set to a moody piano track composed by Kalina's then-girlfriend, the video uses the most mundane of materials — selfies taken against backdrops of cluttered New York rooms — to summon a sensation that's melancholy and profound. It's a look at how time works on one person and a reminder that it's doing the same to us all.
Kalina's continued the project — in 2012, he released a new, longer version that encompasses 12 and a half years, which is about the span of Boyhood's production. It's labeled "A Work in Progress," a promise of more and a reminder that the point of the video is to document a process that only stops when its creator does.
There's a similar feeling of open-endedness to Boyhood, which begins with Mason as a 6-year-old and ends when he's heading to college, a lanky teenager giving off glimpses of the man he'll eventually be. Boyhood doesn't really follow an arc, though it catches the ups and downs that would describe anyone's life. In its opening shot, it pulls out to reveal its protagonist lying on the grass on an unexceptional but beautiful day, and when it comes to a close, it's not after something major has happened to Mason or because he's reached a particular moment of understanding. It ends because leaving home is as good a time as any for the film to bow out, just as its subject is beginning a next step in his life.
In the storytelling sense, nothing major happens to Mason — Boyhood deliberately skirts most of the typical milestones of a coming-of-age story: There's no first kiss, no epiphany about what he's going to do with his life, no air-clearing showdown with his parents. It's not a collection of best-of moments on the theme of adolescence. In fact, the moments in which you can most feel the hand of a director are the film's least satisfying — the ones in which there's suddenly a feeling of a story that needs to be navigated, as when Mason's first stepfather turns out to be an alcoholic and a real prick, or when a bit of advice one character gives pays off later on.
But those are small quibbles about a movie that otherwise manages to inhabit the moment with zen-like consistency, and the zoomed-in specificity of Mason's experiences only make the end result more universal. Mason plays Dead Man Come Alive on a trampoline and deals with a family move to Houston, he bickers with his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter) in the backseat of a car and attends a midnight Harry Potter book release party. He's shorn of his long hair by a disapproving stepparent and receives questionable advice about girls from some older kids, while going from pensive, round-faced child to angular, artistic teen.
Divorced before the movie even begins, Mason's parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) do their own share of maturing, demonstrating in different ways that you don't stop growing up just because you have a child. Arquette's Olivia carves out a satisfying political path for herself, but can't seem to stop making the same repeated mistakes in her personal life. And Linklater clearly has a connection to Mason Sr., the well-meaning but initially immature dad who really needed another decade of bouncing around before attempting parenthood.
Mason Sr. can be unreliable, but he's also loving and charming, and, like most of the characters in the film, can't be pinned down. "I will not be that guy — you cannot put me in that category," he tells his kids on a weekend visit when they try to fend him off with small talk, insisting they share with him real details about their lives instead of polite conversations. He wants to be the cool dad, to cut through the bullshit shell of social interactions to get to what's actually important. But Boyhood is a testament to how momentous those seemingly unimportant times are, the instances that get cut out of anecdotes, but that are just as essential a part of one's personal history. It's a collage of ordinary fragments that, in the end, add up to a greater whole.