When Richard Linklater began shooting Boyhood in 2002, his lead actor, Ellar Coltrane, was 6 years old. When he finished in 2013, Coltrane was a teenager on the verge of young adulthood. Childhoods are too infinitely varied for anyone to make the definitive movie about growing up, but Linklater has come awfully close with Boyhood by portraying one particular coming-of-age in amazing and sometimes heartbreaking detail.
By shooting in bursts over an unprecedented (for a narrative film) 12 years, Boyhood captures exactly how time works with Coltrane and Patricia Arquette, regular Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke, and the director's own daughter, Lorelei. It's an intimate story with an epic scope, an even more ambitious extension of what the filmmaker did with his Before trilogy, in which he revisited lovers Jesse (Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) as if the years between films had also passed for the characters, totaling a span of 18 years between the first film, Before Sunrise, and the last, Before Midnight. "Time, if you think about it, is the fundamental building block of cinema," Linklater explained in a phone interview with BuzzFeed. "I've spent a lot of time thinking about how that relates to storytelling."
But Linklater skips the expected milestones of first kisses and school dances in telling the story of Mason (Coltrane), a young Texan whose parents Olivia (Arquette) and Mason Sr. (Hawke) are divorced by the time the film opens with the shot used in BuzzFeed's exclusive poster above. "Those big moments aren't usually the things that you remember later," Linklater noted. "In my own memory process, I was trying to hit on things that did stand out for very different reasons that you can hardly explain," he added, which, for Mason, includes having a traumatic haircut forced on him by a domineering stepfather, playing a game of "Dead Man Come Alive" on a trampoline, getting advice from older boys on how to meet girls, and discovering of a passion for photography.
While Mason ages into a conveniently Linklateresque teenager, sensitive and fond of philosophical conversations, the filmmaker said he was willing to follow Coltrane's lead, however he grew up. "I didn't have a pre-conceived notion of what kind of person he would be. I did get extremely lucky in that Ellar turned out to be this thoughtful, wonderful, intriguing, mysterious guy," he said. It's all part of the terrifying act of trust that is committing to a project that spans more than a decade, something Linklater referred to as going "beyond a leap of faith." But he sees Boyhood as actually being created with an air of optimism, in the belief that not only would his collaborators continue to show up but "that we'd still be here 12 years from now, that the world would be here."
Linklater, who drew from his own adolescence to create one of the greatest portraits of high school life in 1993's Dazed and Confused, feels that as much as pop culture and technology can change, other aspects of being young never do. That was what he realized when preparing to make Dazed and Confused, when he interviewed high schoolers in the early '90s about what they did on the weekends, and it was how he felt in approaching Boyhood, which explains the film's confident universality. Linklater planned the 12-year stretch to encompass first grade through the end of high school, wanting to capture "the experience of being trapped in your own house, of being trapped in the school system ... Freedom beckons, but it's just not there yet."
But Boyhood isn't just the story of how Mason comes of age — it's also about how his parents change and grow, especially Hawke's loving but initially immature character. "Ultimately, it's a portrait of not just the maturation process, but also aging and parenting," Linklater said, or as Hawke put it after watching a cut of the movie a few years earlier, "Wow. They grow up; we age." But Boyhood makes the case that the two things are the same, just life passing by in a series of beautifully realized moments as its characters move forward into the future.