There is no doubt that the advent of cinema has overturned the traditional concept of time. The cinematic language has challenged the linear progression that links together the past, present, and future. The time on the screen has lost its homogeneity, revealing a new complexity. Just think, for example, of how editing has manipulated the time axis using narrative tools such as flashback or flashforward. Or simply consider how visual effects such as slow-motion have influenced the viewer’s perception of time while also prolonging the emotions of a scene. But one thing is certain: being able to make the time of the narrative coincide with the time of reality is an almost impossible challenge. Yet, Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood seems to have somehow overcome it.

Filmed in Texas from 2002 to 2014 with the same cast, Boyhood is a twelve-year-long film experiment. Indeed, the outstanding feature of the movie is that its cast literally grows and ages on screen before the viewer’s eyes. And it does so in an incredibly compact way. Boyhood holds a strong connection to the real world and to the truth of human feelings, the reality of existence, and the passage of time. After all, it is nothing more than a movie told by time and its continuity. The story of a family and the road it has ahead of it. With no option to turn back.

Richard Linklater has made time a central theme of his work and his personal signature. Indeed, most of his movies such as Dazed and Confused (1993), the Before trilogy (1995-2013), and Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) focus on this topic.

“The 12-Year Project”

Boyhood covers twelve years of the life of Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), from ages six to eighteen, starting in elementary school and ending when he enters college. Along with him are his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and their divorced parents Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette). The viewer follows Mason Jr.’s childhood and adolescence, his relationship with his sister, and their parents’ different life choices.

Greeted with universal critical acclaim, Boyhood or “The 12-Year Project” (that’s how the cast and crew referred to the movie during the shooting period) ranked fifth on Metacritic’s Best Movies of All Time list. The movie premiered at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. It competed at the 64th Berlin International Film Festival, where Linklater won the Silver Bear for Best Director. At the 72nd Golden Globe Awards, Boyhood won Best Motion Picture Drama, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actress for Patricia Arquette. Lastly, it has been nominated for six Oscars at the 87th Academy Awards, winning again for Best Supporting Actress.

A sense of continuity

The progression of cinematic language has allowed the viewer to see real people aging within visual narratives. Suffice just to think of the kids in the Harry Potter film series whom the viewer has seen grow up over the course of the saga. Or even long-running TV shows such as Grey’s Anatomy that keep showing the cast aging as the seasons run. Also, increasing technology has made it possible to age and/or rejuvenate characters. For example, take Brad Pitt‘s face in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) or Will Smith in Gemini Man (2019). But, as TV and film critic Matt Zoller Seitz states in his review for RogerEbert.com, the viewer has “never seen it happen in such a compact span of screen time. That’s what makes Boyhood singular. There is no other work to which one can directly compare it without distorting pop culture history.”

Boyhood, therefore, gives much more emphasis to how the story is told rather than what is told. The result is an ambitious cinematic exercise that succeeded in preserving a remarkable continuity and fluidity throughout the sequences shot over the twelve years of shooting. Indeed, the movie has unique compactness from a visual perspective thanks mainly to Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly‘s cinematography and Sandra Adair‘s editing, who has worked with Linklater since 1993. This is also ensured by the director’s choice to shoot the movie on film. Doing so keeps Boyhood from looking like a documentary made up of multiple homemade family videos.

A soundtrack that marks the passage of time

In Boyhood, what sets the stage for the passage of time and marks the flow of the years is in particular the soundtrack. To do so, the director- with the help of music supervisor Randy Poster– took a number of chart-topping hits that shaped the decade of reference. Thus, popular songs such as Yellow by Coldplay, Crazy by Gnarls Barkley, or Deep Blue by Arcade Fire help move the story forward and convey to the viewer the aging of Mason and his family.

Discussing this in an interview, Linklater claimed that he had to abandon the idea of a uniform score for the very reason that it would not have worked with Boyhood‘s intention of showcasing the passage of biological time. Hence, each year he kept an eye on the charts by choosing tunes that also had cultural significance. As a result, the songs featured in Boyhood gain a much more meaningful and not merely decorative value. Indeed, they serve to express the protagonist’s evolving interests as he grows up. Just as it happens to each of us in real life.

A movie about time

Therefore, in the end, Boyhood is nothing more than a cinematic attempt to stage and narrate biological time. Indeed, if on the one hand, it is the simple story of a family (like This Is Us, but with no change of actors to play the same characters at various ages), on the other it is also the story and reenactment of a time that we have all experienced.

Actually, the movie follows in the background and frames the major events that have shaped American history in the 2000s and that have penetrated our collective consciousness, structuring our thinking as well– whether we experienced these events actively or passively. In conclusion, Boyhood is a realistic depiction of a present that never turns back but continues to go on its way, sometimes losing something and gaining something else. Just like everyone’s present.