Boyhood fundamentally alters the notion of “progress” for cinema: developments in film history have been mostly characterized by technological advances, such as the use of new cameras and/or convincing special effects. We witnessed cinema's enormous step into the future of visual technology when Spielberg brought us Jurassic Park, a film that, I think, serves as an approximate end of stop-go motion and animatronics, and beginning of computer-generated imagery. Since then, computers and cameras have remained happily married, and have formed a union so seemingly organic that viewers now take it entirely for granted.
Boyhood doesn't propel cinema into the far future by use of computers though, nor by the use of some brand new, fancy-ass camera. Instead, Richard Linklater found his inspiration, and method, in the far reaches of one of the oldest and wisest of virtues: patience. If you truly, convincingly, want to make a film about time itself, and the relationship a human life shares with it, you don't need a camera with 4520 x 2540 active pixels, and you sure as hell don't need to invent some new computer program; all you actually need is time itself. In the case of Boyhood, Linklater took 12 years of it, and the result is one of the most authentic representations of what it's like to grow up. It's precisely this that makes it so revolutionary: never before have we seen a character actually grow up before our eyes.
Whether a director can pull this off, though, isn't exactly the point. What we, as viewers, should concern ourselves with, is whether or not it's any fun to watch. Can an experiment like this add up to be a satisfying movie? Luckily, amazingly, miraculously—it adds up perfectly, and manages to be deeply satisfying.
There is no plot in the general sense, no overriding conflict to drive the drama onward; instead the conflict is life itself, and all the mini-dramas we face as we age. Each character demands your empathy, if for no reason other than the fact that they feel equally as fragile as any living person. Story-tellers have always struggled to make their characters convincingly complex and life-like, but Boyhood makes this process feel effortless, and the result is even occasionally discomforting, as it probably should be. Honesty, like this, is rare in film these days, and when you've acquired a habit (a taste, even) for watching a movie to escape real life, it feels a bit weird to, instead, have it thrown right back in your face. That's what makes Boyhood so remarkable: it reminds you everything life truly is and isn't.
Linklater wasn't occupied with segmenting this experience into chapters. Instead, it unfolds rather like life itself, seamlessly, with no noticeable markers to designate different periods of Mason's adolescence. All we have to track the passage of time is his gradual physical transformation, one albeit, that bleeds furiously into both his past and present. The effect is like something that's never been done before in a film, one that can hardly be articulated, and is better to just be seen. Similar to what parents must experience while watching their children age, we too, both notice and also don't notice the subtle changes in this person as he/she grows: there's a relentless, uncanny resemblance to a person's past in each of their physical features, just enough to string together our memory of what they once were to what they've become; but at the same time, there's an unpredictable newness that's always emerging, wrestling its way to visibility, a sort of novelty that can't be placed until it has already silently slipped away.
This paradoxical relationship we all share with time—that is, the constant reminder of who we once were, coupled with the constant foreshadowing of what we are becoming—is the magic behind Boyhood. We're not used to characters this authentic, and we've never seen a character emanate directly from an actor's being in the way Mason does from Ellar Coltrane. It fucks with your head.
[Boyhood](movie:989626) will go down as an indisputable masterpiece, and I'm sure nobody who's seen the film doubts that. More important than its soaring experimentalism, though, is the message at its core, which I personally interpret to be as simple as this: We don't exist in order to make sense of our lives, that's impossible, and only brings about pain. We exist to live our lives, to embrace and soak up each moment, and this can only be done once we've given up on trying to explain it to ourselves. There's a scene where Mason asks his Dad (who is played brilliantly by Ethan Hawke), about the meaning of life, to which his Dad responds with a perfectly delivered, “Shit if I know.” Shit if anyone ever will know. This special sort of ignorance we all share is exactly what turns us onto life though, it keeps us in that perfect state of wonder. We respect life, we love life, because we don't understand it, because we can't have total power over it. Instead, we have no choice but to resign to it, and to just try to enjoy the ride. With Boyhood, Linklater has officially solidified his name in film history, and provided an experience as rich as life itself.