When an artist completes a masterpiece, it's not uncommon to call it the work he's been building to his entire career, but rarely is that as literal as with "Boyhood," the movie that writer/director Richard Linklater famously shot off and on between 2002 and 2013. We meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as the 6 year old product of divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). We leave him as an 18 year old freshman at college. And we marvel at something as blatant and obvious as the passage of time.
Defiantly plotless, "Boyhood" resists easy arcs or lessons, despite covering a 12 year time frame, offering less a story than a series of events. People grow in small increments (both physically and emotionally). Characters who seem important drift in and out of focus. The soundtrack appropriately evolves with the times.
Linklater has said that he wanted to portray a young man's coming of age story, but frustrated with the limitations of a single shooting period, turned to this monumental technique instead. But to what end? Despite overwhelming praise (even Pixar would weep with envy at this movie's Rotten Tomatoes score), there are factions of critics who say the movie fascinates more as an experiment than a final product. That if you remove its famed production method, "Boyhood" offers little more than well performed nothingness.
So what of it? Is it fair to love "Boyhood" as much for how it was made as what was made? Does that extend to any work of art? It reminds me of the 2007 documentary "My Kid Could Paint That," which began as the chronicle of child prodigy artist Marla Olmstead until it became suggested that maybe her father either assisted with or outright completed her paintings. But should that even matter? If people paid a pretty penny for Marla's paintings thinking they were entirely her creations, then on some level, you'd hope they simply liked the works. It's still art. The importance of how it was created should only go so far.
All of which to say, yes, if Linklater made the same "Boyhood" in a more traditional way, recasting Mason as he aged, the result might seem more bland. But he didn't, we know he didn't, and this becomes inextricably tied to our experience of the movie. Best to accept this and marvel at the "how" and the "what," because it all fuses to create a singularly, transcendentally moving experience.
What Linklater and his troupe of actors (who also contributed to the screenplay as the years progressed) made is a sort of intimate epic, whose superficial mundanity becomes all the more powerful for its mundanity. If Linklater did indeed make a coming of age story, it's not the type where someone grows through one specific experience. It's the type where a kid ages from 6 to 18 without dying in between.
You know. Kinda like life.
Linklater as a filmmaker remains steadfastly committed to this intimacy. He rarely allows wider master shots until toward the end, when Mason ventures on his own and his life leaves our focus. Before then, Linklater opts for almost exclusively plain medium shots. Nothing that calls attention to itself. Nothing flashy. Even in the opening scene, our introduction to Mason is him lying on his back in the grass, but Linklater noticeably refuses to offer a panorama of the sky from his perspective. And as we jump from year to year, there are no clear transitions or establishing shots - we're just expected to keep up.
Linklater seems to focus exclusively on the trees with our awareness that the forest is out there. Mason's mother marries her professor, who reveals himself to be an abusive alcoholic, but they leave him and his character is never seen again. As he grows older, Mason experiments with drugs, but it's presented as neither life changing nor life ending. He also asks his father about girls, they discuss politics and pop culture, and his sister bugs him throughout. All of which happens during a 3 hour running time that flies with the ease of swapping stories with old friends.
None of this is presented as particularly "important." None of it has to be. "Boyhood" has the audacity to suggest that a life lived is an epic one simply because it happened to you. All of the larger arcs in "Boyhood" seem to happen on the fringes, suggested rather than portrayed. Arquette finishes graduate school and eventually teaches at a university herself. Hawke, initially portrayed as a well-meaning slacker, remarries and settles down with a new family, accepting his responsibilities as a father. Meanwhile, nothing much happens to Mason besides the same stuff that happened to all of us every day when we his age.
It's a popular theme (or cliche) of fiction, probably because it's one we universally face, to realize we're the star of our own story and the supporting player in everybody else's. If our actions seem of vital importance to the world, it's only because we're the ones doing them, day in and day out. The truth is we really don't matter, at least not in the grander scope. We each stand here as the result of coincidence, chance, and, lets face it, pure ungodly accident.