Photograph: Courtesy of IFC Films

directed by Richard Linklater
IFC Productions

Boyhood is the succès d’estime of the year in film. The top critics have sung a chorus of praise.

Richard Linklater, the director, has long been admired among high-minded cinephiles. In 2004 he was the subject of a U.K. Channel 4 documentary, unironically titled St. Richard of Austin—as in Austin, Texas, where he has built a film colony, which was chronicled recently in The New Yorker. Linklater has all the liberal values that people at Channel 4 admire. He is an anti-Hollywood, anti-corporate, vegan cowboy. He rejects the red carpet celebrity culture of Los Angeles. He would rather make his films in the summer heat of the Lonestar State than in the noxious atmosphere of Hollywood.

Certainly it took a rare studio producer to finance Boyhood, which breaks all the rules of commercial filmmaking and, in its own down-home Texas way, is as artistically ambitious as Proust. Instead of searching his memory for temps perdu, Linklater spent twelve years recording memories on film. Shooting for a few days each year, he shows us a boy change from vulnerable, baby-fat childhood to lean, bearded adolescence. Ethan Hawke, Linklater’s buddy and one of the main cast members who signed up for the twelve-year hitch, says Boyhood is like time-lapse photography. Linklater has often dealt with the passage of time; indeed some critics think that is what this film is about, a time capsule of popular music and video games. That I know little about either did not detract from my pleasure. But perhaps pleasure is too strong a word. Linklater does not try to entertain you; he expects you to participate in the experience, and he counts on the audience in every scene he films.

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Hawke has starred in several of Linklater’s efforts, notably the trilogy Before Sunrise (1995), Before Sunset (2004), and Before Midnight (2013). Filmed as a sequence over twenty years, those works explore the possibility of love in the minefield of contemporary two-career relationships when passion falters and manipulations begin. Hawke leaps into his Boyhood role as a would-be Texas music maker who got his girlfriend pregnant.

I must confess that Hawke is not one of my favorite actors. To me there is something repulsive about him. His ego has always seemed visibly larger than his role, even when he played Hamlet. But in Boyhood, as a father who abandoned his children to pursue his adolescent dreams in Alaska and has now come back to Texas at least partly to make up for his absence, he is winning. He says so many helpful things to his son—helpful, not pretentious—that despite his faults he is admirable. Finding the admirable in flawed characters is key to Linklater’s filmmaking. Yes, there are villains; the mother’s second husband is an alcoholic control freak, but Linklater does not show us his physical abuse of his wife.

That is the essential quality of Linklater's filmmaking: he invites our compassion.

Patricia Arquette gives a brilliant performance as Olivia, the single mom who makes bad choices about men. Arquette, eager to sign on to the film, says it was the project of her lifetime. Her body thickens over twelve years, and her hair gets shorter as she morphs from sexy and appealing to stolid and independent. She builds a career as a psychology professor, but desire flickers out and her go-it-alone defenses harden. In the end, when she empties her nest and sends her son off to college, she bursts into tears and wonders, “Is that all there is to life? I thought there would be more.”

But Boyhood is not a tearjerker. It collects the pieces of a family’s story. In interviews, Linklater suggests that his goal is to hold a mirror up to nature, to make what we see on the screen seem natural. When he rehearses a planned scene with the actors, he accepts suggestions within the structure he has created. Of course dead horses are buried under the word “natural.” To Linklater it seems to mean respect for the humanity of his characters, who redeem each other by acts of kindness. When Olivia is at her lowest point, wondering if life has anything to offer her, she runs into a man who once fixed her sewer pipe. She told him back then that he was smart and that he should go to night school and community college. She learns that the man did just what she told him, that his life changed for the better, and he will always be grateful to her. This small, contingent moment is typical of Linklater’s style: human kindness is possible. It may even be redemptive. We are not engaged in a war of all against all.

Whether sexy or stolid, Arquette is wonderful—indeed natural—and she and Hawke invite our compassion. That is the essential quality of Linklater’s filmmaking: he invites our compassion. This film is not about adrenalized plots or the Hollywood staple of sex and violence. There is talk about sex and there is the shadow of violence, but there are no portrayals of either.

These are ordinary people, painted with less exaggeration than those in the famous film of that name. But they are white, lower middle-class, and Texan, so in the chorus of praise, The Atlantic demurred. In a piece entitled “Not Everyone’s Boyhood,” a critic complains that the film “avoids the topic of race.” The review charges that people admire this film because they recognize themselves in it, but there is no character with whom blacks can identify. True, but I too did not recognize myself in the film. Linklater has made this peculiar group of Texans—a dreamy-eyed boy, his bratty older sister, his struggling single mom, and divorced dad—into human beings for whom we feel compassion not because they are like us, but because we are caught up in the director’s genius for conveying that emotion. He persistently and successfully steers a course between sentimentality and exaggeration.

The most notable example of this achievement comes when Ethan Hawke’s character takes his children to meet his new Christian fundamentalist in-laws. They all go to Sunday services. There we get a sermon about doubting Thomas, who has to put his finger in Christ’s wounds to believe in the resurrection. The preacher—dressed like everyone else, with no liturgical rhetoric—explains that he has encountered the spirit of Jesus and, without Christ’s bleeding body to touch, he believes in the resurrection, and he hopes the congregants do as well. Linklater’s brief portrait of these people is a miracle of the unironic natural. We are invited neither to condescend nor to participate in the service; rather we wonder at Linklater’s gifted portrait.

The real stars of the film are the children. At six years old, Ellar Coltrane was cast as Mason, and Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei as his older sister. Cinephiles agree that this was an extraordinary leap of faith for all concerned, not just for the producer who put up the money. Would Coltrane’s family hang on for twelve years? And who knew what this child of six would look like at eighteen? Would he still be photogenic?

Boyhood begins with Mason looking into the sky. Then we segue through a young boy’s lifecycle: being picked on by his sister, riding his bike, painting a bit of graffiti, looking at women’s ample bosoms in a Sears catalog with an older boy, and so on. But there are also deeper, universal moments, such as when he gets his father to admit that elves do not exist: we see the loss of gullibility and perhaps of faith. When Mason watches unseen as his mother argues with her boyfriend, one imagines him recognizing the uncertainty of her life.

From the start, Mason is a watcher, so it is no surprise that he develops an interest in photography. One might worry that he is too isolated. In fact he rarely interacts with his mom, and he and his sister Samantha go their separate ways. His only real girlfriend in high school, with whom he loses his virginity, abandons him for a lacrosse player. So is Mason capable of enjoying human intimacy? Does he even want it? There are touching moments with his father, and Mason does seem to have a friend, but mainly he is about photography.

The film in that sense is a portrait of an artist as a young Texan. Mason seems out of place in high school, but then he is off to college, and his roommate appears made for him. Instead of going to orientation, they hike an impressive hillside. And his roommate’s girlfriend has brought someone along for Mason. She might be his soul mate. Their eyes meet, and Mason, we believe, senses the possibility of the other. It is another beginning and a fitting end to this boyhood.

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It would be a mistake to think we have seen the real Ellar Coltrane. Linklater says, and I believe him, that there is a lot of himself in the film. Hawke has the same impression. When Coltrane showed up at the premieres with a ring hanging from his nose, Mason was apparently no longer taking directions from anyone. Boyhood is natural, but it’s art, not reality.