Why you should care

Because it’s rare that you can watch someone grow up onscreen.

Richard Linklater started making his new movie Boyhood in 2002. That it took a dozen years to finish might imply some familiar horror story about the difficulty of modern filmmaking — but actually, it was the point all along.

Boyhood isn’t a documentary, but it is a long, deep slice of life. Linklater chose to hang out with his characters, particularly one Texas schoolboy (Ellar Coltrane), for 12 years on purpose, because he knew those years would be formative. And sure enough, now, in just a couple of hours, the kid grows up — from age 7 to 18 — right before our eyes.

Such stirring cinematic experiments are not unprecedented. Boyhood ’s closest kin might be Michael Apted’s well-known Up series of documentaries, which began in 1964 with Seven Up! and checked in on the same group of Britons every seven years (56 Up, from 2012, being the latest installment). It’s still going. That project, in turn, clearly was an influence on the recent documentary American Promise — a film by two parents who tracked their own child through a dozen years of his own fairly turbulent education.

These nonfiction films border on social research, but the fictional films might hold the broader power of simple human curiosity. Director François Truffaut tracked a fictive alter ego played by Jean-Pierre Léaud over five films and 20-plus years, starting with Truffaut’s 1959 feature debut, The 400 Blows, when Léaud was 12. Ingmar Bergman closed out a long and magnificent moviemaking career by appending his great 1973 TV miniseries Scenes from a Marriage with a riveting epilogue, Saraband, thirty years later. And more recently, while getting older himself and seeing other projects through, Linklater (of Before Midnight trilogy fame) very patiently kept coming back to Boyhood.

Maybe it’s an answer to the raised bar of recent longform TV narrative, or a rebuke to Hollywood’s perpetual-franchise-reboot mentality, or a simple avowal of that which special effects can’t do (yet). Profound time-awareness always was the essence of cinema’s most poetic possibilities. Think of that early match cut from a flying bone to a gliding spacecraft in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Stanley Kubrick’s elegant leap across millennia and across human understanding. Think of Christian Marclay’s epic museum-installation montage The Clock: 24 straight hours’ worth of pre-existing movie clips, each depicting the passage of time, arranged in sync with the actual passage of time.

Linklater’s film taps right into the same special magic. Inevitably it’s a reminder that you were a kid once, and maybe you had a kid once, or more than once, and now you know all too well the feeling that the speed of life, once presumed constant, does accelerate.

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