In 2002, director Richard Linklater began a remarkable movie-making experiment known as The Twelve Year Project. The idea: to make a series of short films, one per year, following a boy's growth from age 6 to 18—from first grade to college freshman—using the same cast each year, with the intention of cutting the footage together into a feature film.
The result is BOYHOOD, one of the most engaging and flat-out fascinating films ever made. It's one thing to dream up such an ambitious project. It's another to pull off the logistics and make it come together as a story. From concept to execution, Boyhood is a thrilling piece of art.
Ellar Coltrane stars as the boy, Mason, appearing in initial scenes as a typical 6-year-old, playful and vulnerable. Mason's parents, portrayed by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, have split up. Olivia is introduced as a harried single mom, loving and committed but perhaps resentful of losing her freewheeling twenties to early parenthood. Mason Sr. is the absent dad, just returned from adventures in Alaska.
Linklater's daughter, Lorelei Linklater, takes the fourth main role as Mason's older sister Samantha, and we watch her grow up, too. Every ten minutes or so, the timeline bumps up a year. It's an uncanny sensation to watch those early scenes and realize that they were shot more than a decade ago. As the early-2000s cultural signifiers roll by—Harry Potter at the multiplex, Roger Clemens on the mound—the film narrows its focus on Mason and his broken family.
The kids get taller and thinner, the grown-ups sadder and wiser. Olivia goes back to school and subjects the children to some truly awful stepdads. Mason Sr. settles down and finds that responsibility isn't all that bad. The kids become teenagers and discover sex, drugs and heartbreak. Everyone does the best they can.
As with Michael Apted's Up documentary series, which has profiled a group of British people every seven years since 1964, it's a time-lapse view of human lives unfolding. The best cutting-edge digital technology or makeup artistry could never achieve what Linklater does here.
Even the most vérité films have subtle layers of artifice that we learn to accept almost subconsciously. We suspend our disbelief. Linklater's grand experiment, using the same actors over 12 years in a narrative film, tinkers with the fundamentals of cinematic storytelling. It registers somewhere back in the brain stem that we're watching real people age and change through time.
This would just be a gimmick if it weren't executed with such artistry. But because the story is so strong, the dialogue so natural and the performances so uniformly excellent, something is essentially altered. Boyhood doesn't feel like a movie. It feels like something altogether different. I suspect that the next generation of film scholars will be flagging this one in the books, or holo-archives, or whatever the future may hold.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Time and space."