Boyhood is a remarkable project, filmed over twelve years using the same actors and actresses. Richard Linklater is a director who likes to take his time with his personal projects.
His Before trilogy was almost twenty years in the making, revisiting the young lovers of Sunrise at regular intervals to see how life has treated them in the meantime. The technique allows the actors to bring their own hard-won wisdom to their roles, and Linklater treats his characters as real people.
BoyhoodDirected by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
In Boyhood, we meet the central character, Mason Evans (Ellar Coltrane) as an imaginative six-year-old, and during the course of the film, watch him grow up into a rangy, artistic, introspective teen leaving home for college.
The title is a little misleading, because the film isn’t just about Mason growing up. It is about his big sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), who grows from a bratty girl tormenting her little brother, to a calm teen with a genuine friendship with Mason. It is also about his separated parents, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and Mason Senior (Ethan Hawke), how their lives develop over time.
When we first meet single mum Olivia, she is struggling to make ends meet and arguing with her boyfriend, who doesn’t understand her commitment to her kids. By the end of the film, she has gone through two bad marriages and achieved her personal goals, but is middle-aged and terrified of life alone once her children have both flown the nest.
Mason Senior undergoes the most radical change. He starts off as an irresponsible father unable to settle down, driving a vintage Pontiac and playing in a band with his stoner flatmate. By the time Mason Jr leaves school, he’s got a regular job and another kid with another woman, and has traded the muscle car for a sensible family vehicle.
Boyhood is also about how society changes – at the beginning of the film, people talk face-to-face and exchange information over the phone; in twelve short years, they’re having heart-to-hearts on Skype and checking each other’s Facebook statuses. Although not overtly political, the state of the nation is visible in the background – the Bush era’s instant armed response to 9/11 and the disastrous invasion of Iraq, through to teenaged Mason Jr and Samantha pitching Obama campaign flags in neighbour’s front gardens.
We’re so aware of genre cliches that when Linklater presents moments that could result in some drama, we kind of pre-empt what is going to happen next. The kids ask early on whether mum and dad will get back together – neither seem committal either way, and a standard family drama/romantic comedy would involve a series of will they-won’t they situations to string the audience along.
The strongest part of the film narratively is Olivia’s first marriage, to her night class lecturer who turns out an abusive alcoholic. His violent outburst at the dinner table is genuinely shocking, but we never find out what happened to him or his own kids. Later, Mason Jr goes for a sleepover with some friends at an unfinished house, and ends up drinking, smashing stuff up and throwing rotary saw blades around like frisbies. We’re waiting for a horrible injury or a petty crime, but Mason just goes home a bit tipsy.
In each of these three moments, we’re waiting for conventional narrative to kick in and take that part of the story to the next level. Like often in real life, the vignette has no regular payoff, and we’re onto the next part of the family’s journey through life – Boyhood is a family drama with plenty of family, but not much in-your-face drama.
It is hard to criticise a film that is clearly such a labour of love from the director, and the collaborative approach which has allowed his cast to bring their own life experiences to their roles. The only nagging doubt I have is that Linklater seems so determined to avoid clichéd scenarios that the film runs for almost three hours with barely any plot – by the end I felt like they were still filming somewhere, and a little guy was running in the back door of the cinema with another reel to tack on the end.
It so convincingly portrays life that a couple of times I thought, “Hang on a minute, I’ve got a real life of my own. What am I watching theirs for?”, and it never evoked childhood as strongly as Terence Malick’s lyrical The Tree of Life.
Yet it is a humanist, contemplative vision, and in the days since we saw it, my partner and I have revisited scenes from the film when discussing our hopes and fears about what parenthood will hold for us. Boyhood is probably a little too low-key to be regarded as an instant classic, but may be Richard Linklater’s masterpiece.
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