How many of us, growing up with cinema’s magic, found our first enchantment in time-lapse photography? Those transformation scenes that make a speeding miracle of growth and change? The dark-to-daylight of a dawning day. A year’s seasons revolving in seconds. A flower racing from seedling to petalled glory. The same sorcery is presented, at slower speed but with even more haunting skill, in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood.
With one time-lapse cycle already to his name, the Ethan Hawke-Julie Delpy Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, Linklater dons his cycling clips for another. You could call this one – so ambitious and brave a hostage to time and serendipity – the Tour de Chance. The 12-year shoot was built around the same four actors, led by Ellar Coltrane, picked at six to play Mason, a Texas-born kid who will grow to 18 before our eyes. The co-stars, pledging their participation for three days every year, were Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the separated parents and Lorelei Linklater, the filmmaker’s daughter, as Mason’s sister. (Precocious and comically stroppy, she thieves most of the early scenes.)
A whisper short of three hours, the film and its plot are so lithe yet robust you can hang anything on them. For “anything” read “everything”: an everything that, like clothes hung on a line, bobs and billows, expressively, with each scripted or unscripted turn in the story. The film traverses every trial in a young human life. Parental tensions (an abusive stepdad followed by one barely better); the peer pressures and subtle torments of school; the acne and ecstasy of adolescence (sex, drugs, experimentation); first love; thoughts of vocation and “what I want to do and be”.
Mason decides he wants to be a photographer. That choice was made in mid-production because so did actor Coltrane. With reality as your script anything can happen, and does; though unlike a time-lapse flower a human being doesn’t speed with seamless linearity from bud to bloom. “Oh he’s got a little fat” (we say here of one year’s change in Mason). “Now he’s got slim again.” “This year he looks a bit pale and tired.” “Now, a year on, he looks fresher and rosier.”
Coltrane doesn’t act a great deal. He reacts, with eyes so quiet yet speakingly limpid they seem to double the drama by mirroring it. Arquette and Hawke are wonderful, she ageing more capriciously as she rides the waves of weight change and a beleaguered motherly concern. Whenever the story gets too domestic, Linklater agitates the bigger backdrop of modern American history. We get the Iraq war, the Obama election . . . “Do I look like a Barack Hussein Obama supporter?” screams a Republican in the leafy-prosperous suburbs when Mason, doorstepping, tries to hand him a “Vote Democrat” flag.
Near the end we get two larger existential shrugs as if to amplify the film’s acoustic. Even these, though, are exquisitely casual. “What’s the point of it all . . . ” mumbles Mason to Hawke, meaning life, in a long barroom interlude of poignant, plainspun togetherness. A little later there’s a different but no less demotic cry from the heart. A desert; a girl by Mason’s side; and a few words shared about the “moments” that keep raining down on us, as miraculous and implacable as neutrinos, and as near-invisible to the simplifying gaze, in a single day of a single life. And in a single frame of a single – and singular – American movie.