Richard Linklater's Oscar-nominated film Boyhood is not just a time-lapse snapshot of the lives of a family - it is an exploration of time itself, shrewd and philosophical while staying true to the ages of its characters.
We start with Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) as a seven-year-old, and nine-year-old sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), living with their mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) in a small Texas town. Fed up with feeling stuck, Olivia packs up the kids and moves to Houston to pursue a Masters degree. Her ex, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), returns from Alaska and becomes a sometime presence in his children's lives. And they grow up, all of them, in a film shot over a ten year period. Samantha develops from a blunt-spoken (smart-mouthed) older sister, to a poised and confident young woman. Mason, Jr. survives the milestones of boyhood with the awkwardness, curiosity and half-step-back contemplation that help us to remember our own experiences: not just the times we were pretty sure we knew what we were doing, but the cringe-worthy assertions and blithe mistakes we have surely stuffed into a forgettory closet.
The standard narrative story-arc - conflict, climax, resolution - is missing here. What we get in its place is the flow of life told in moments - a camping trip, a drunken rage, an embarrassing haircut, being the New Kid at school, a teenage boy's heartfelt conversation with a girl he hopes understands him, the ways a marriage sours. Along the way, Mason, Jr. and Samantha learn about themselves and their parents. The film ends with Mason in college, visiting his mom at her new apartment.
"I like your mom," one of Mason's friends tells him.
"I like her too, but she's as confused as I am," Mason says in a tone of baffled worry: how can she have lived so long and done so much, and still have no idea what her life's about? The adults around him are more cautionary than positive role models.
The moments we see are scripted, but acting works hand-in-glove with the passage of time to create the film's impact. Arquette does the most masterful job, in my estimation - her character keeps trying, keeps failing, keeps choosing a new path and trying again. Her struggles and self-doubts, and her successes, prevent her from living a life on automatic pilot. Hawke settles into a role he finds comfortable and lets it expand around him, simplifying his character's life by dulling that hunger-for-answers. He's the happier of the two - because he's stopped asking questions?
Linklater has a philosophical bent: his 2001 roto-scope animated Waking Life examines dreams and ideas in a way that gives us dreams and ideas of our own. In Boyhood the actuality of time is the driver. This cinematic journey is a long trip to a destination we can name as a point on a map while knowing nothing about it, except that if we keep going, eventually we'll find what's there.