A long gestating dream project for Texas based filmmaker Richard Linklater, Boyhood is an intimate family drama charting the journey of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) across the spectral Rubicon that separates boy from man. As the film begins Mason is in the 12th grade through and as it closes some 160-odd minutes later he is of College age. A variety of characters enter and exit his life, but the constants are his immediate family: mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette); sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s own daughter); and on the fringe his estranged father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke).
None of which sounds particularly bold or original, but the way in which Linklater and his collaborators have approached this material delivers a film at once a stunningly successful formal experiment, but also a richly involving drama. With admirable commitment to – and remarkable faith in the abilities of – his (initially) child actors, Linklater shot the film over a 12 year period shooting a few weeks a year. This means that the cast ages before your eyes, haircuts change, bodies develop, fashions shift. There is no need for ‘X years later’ inter-titles, you can tell where you are by the model of iPod or games console onscreen.
This gives the film a flow and coherence usually only found in a television soap but over a vastly compressed running time. Movies that have attempted to present a story over this kind of temporal span have mostly been forced to resort to changing actors, extensive makeup or special effects, all techniques that are inevitable distancing. There is no such distancing here, things just are.
You will actually watch the actors grow up in your field of vision. It’s hard to quite get across how startling this is. The nearest comparison is Granada Television’s Up series of documentaries (directed by Michael Apted). These were a series of periodical films that visited and revisited the lives of a group of children as they grew into adulthood. However those were film at much greater intervals of around seven years that made for jarring shifts, Boyhood is more graduated, and in the earlier stages almost imperceptible, but well into the film Mason Jr/Coltrane hits puberty and the actor’s entire body changes in single stunning cut.
Linklater showed in School of Rock that he was a sensitive and capable director of children but the depth and continuity of character in Boyhood is next-level stuff. The writer/director could presumably exercise a certain degree of influence over his own daughter (although there are stories that she lost interest in the project some years into filming and needed some degree of persuasion or bribery to continue) but it was still clearly a leap of faith. Even more so with Coltrane who was 7 when the film commenced.
It’s common in films about children for the characters to essentially be ‘little adults’ spouting clever and witty lines of dialogue. This isn’t the case here, perhaps tailored to Coltrane’s own skills; Mason Jr. is quite introverted and monosyllabic in early scenes. Initially one wonders, ‘why Boyhood? Why not Girlhood?’ In early scenes it is Lorelei Linklater who really impresses – her rendition of Oops I Did It Again, is a standout moment. The actress has something of the appeal of Linda Blair in The Exorcist – well when she wasn’t vomiting goo and levitating – she seems a more natural performer from the start. However Coltrane visibly grows with confidence through the movie, something that is also reflected in his character as Mason navigates trials of adolescence that will be familiar to anyone. As the actor finds his character, the character is finding himself.
The adult cast are also exceptional; it is a great joy to see Arquette back on screen in such a substantial role. Olivia is a very strong character, but also one flawed in very human ways. She has worked hard to earn a degree and better herself but also has a series of relationships with men who appear strong but in fact hide deep insecurities that find expression in sometimes passive sometimes less than passive aggression. There is a particularly chilling exploration of alcoholism and domestic abuse in one section of the film that is all the stronger for Linklater’s choice to underplay the melodrama and avoid overt physical violence.
Hawke is also great as the kid’s flighty father, a man child whose own unwillingness to grow up and accept responsibility finds a potent metaphor in the (gorgeous) black muscle car that he drives. Mason Sr. is a frustrated artist who channels his creative impulses into doing things like creating the perfect post Beatles songs Beatles mixtape. In fact for much of the film Hawke is the one actor who appears almost ageless; he is deliberately dressed in similar clothes and rarely alters his hairstyle (he looks a lot like Ethan Hawke actually. Does that sound weird? It makes sense to me).
Of course this is a film about the confusions of youth, but rather than forcing a conventional moral from a formative experience it has the honesty to present an uncomfortable truth that most rite-of-passage stories seek to obfuscate or downright lie about. Shit happens! There is no map that leads to the perfect adulthood. Grown-ups are just as confused, frustrated and disappointed as teenagers. Experience is a boon, but it won’t stop you repeating the same mistakes. Ultimately you can plan your education, your career, craft a design for life, but if the universe has other plans it ain’t gonna pan out. The best you can do is just try and be a justified to yourself and your own ideas.
Boyhood is sprawling but focused, and finds the profound in the ordinary minutiae of the everyday. Very much a Linklater film it is a movie in which characters talk a great deal and consider big questions about the nature of life. While not a comedy as such, I haven’t laughed at a film more this year. Hawkes’ character’s explaining the birds and the bees to the utter mortification of his children is a special highlight. Yet this comic scene is tinged with a clear but unacknowledged melancholy. His daughter Samantha is the target of the speech, but actually she is far too old for this. Her father although loving and kind, has been absent for so much of her life he has missed the moment but at least a couple of years.
This is clearly one of the best American films of 2014, and perhaps Linklater’s magnum opus. 165 minutes is a daunting length and I won’t lie and tell you that you won’t feel it, but the story being told, and the method of the telling, justify the length. Warm, but not fuzzy, heartfelt, but without schmaltz, Boyhood is a questioning but optimistic work by a filmmaker who seems to actually like people. And that is extremely refreshing in the current climate.
Review originally published on http://www.chrisandphilpresent.co.uk