Thinking about the books that stand out this month, the one that rises to the top isn’t a book. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, a film that was shot over 12 years and follows a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the ages of 5 to 18, has all the elements we associate with thoughtful fiction and narrative nonfiction. Rather than shoot the film over several months and use different actors to portray Mason as he grows, Linklater shot the film for a total of 49 days during those 12 years; he and producer Cathleen Sutherland managed to reconvene the crew and cast (including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, who play Mason’s parents) at regular intervals. Watching the characters of Boyhood grow and change before your eyes makes their lives and the struggles they experience (divorce, alcoholism, all the oddities of adolescence) particularly intimate. Boyhood is as emotionally layered as the best written narratives; it feels like reading a good novel or deeply human nonfiction book, like Adrian Nicole LeBlanc’s Random Family (2003), an unflinching, empathetic story about a poor Bronx family that absorbed 11 years of the author’s life in immersion reporting.
Usually, calling a film “literary” is shorthand for saying it’s leaden and dense, not at all cinematic, but Linklater, who once wanted to make a biopic about Tolstoy, doesn’t seem to mind the association. “I always had that personality—I think it’s a writer’s sensibility—where you’re there but not there,” he recently told the New Yorker. “I had to make a peace with myself. It’s like, well, you’re not in the moment. But just by contemplating it, by searching for the depth of the moment, that is itself an experience.” Boyhood is an odd masterpiece; odd because the extraordinary circumstances of how it was made threaten to become a bigger story than the story the film tells (a friend recently posted the following on Facebook: “This status update was written over a period of 12 years”). Maybe every real masterpiece has as intriguing a back story as the work itself; if the weird story about how the book (or movie) was made gets you to pay attention to it, so be it.