Set in director Richard Linklater’s home state of Texas, Boyhood is a fascinating, immersive and intimate study of a young boy named Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) and his family which, unusually, took more than twelve years to make. Filming began in 2002, when Coltrane was just six years old, and finally finished in October 2013, with around two years of pre-production to factor in as well. Each year the principal cast members – Coltrane, Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as Mason Jr’s older sister Samantha, Patricia Arquette as mum Olivia and Ethan Hawke as estranged father Mason Sr – would reconvene in Texas for a few days of shooting, and the result is a superbly-realised examination of family life, the major and minor moments that shape lives, and the passing of time.
For an indie movie Boyhood is grand in scale, and it is hands down Linklater’s most arresting film to date (I say that as a committed, long-term fan of Dazed And Confused, which for the past two decades has remained one of the more memorable coming-of-age dramas, a benchmark study of adolescence, and one of my favourite films). Some respected critics have already suggested that Boyhood is a new American classic and that it will be viewed in time as one of the greatest movies ever made, and though such pronouncements are a little silly at this stage, I do wonder about the likelihood of a more impressive cinematic work being released during the remainder of this year. Boyhood is very, very good indeed.
Mason Jr is in first grade when the film begins. He seems to be a quiet, reflective boy, eclipsed somewhat by his cheeky sister Samantha, who offers plenty of back-chat to their stressed-out single mother Olivia. Mason Sr and Olivia have already been through an acrimonious split by this stage, and Linklater begins the story after their break-up; this is one of several events left off-screen which clearly affects the foursome considerably, and the decision to leave it outside of the period of life covered works just fine. At this point in time Mason Sr is a likeable but flaky father, the kind who revels in the role of fun-and-gift-provider while avoiding the necessary and unenjoyable jobs such as getting the kids to do their homework. He has just returned to Texas after a lengthy period of drifting, working and playing in bands in Alaska, but his re-appearance signifies a desire to play a more active role in the lives of his two kids.
Every 15-20 minutes or so the narrative leaps forward by a year. There’s a superbly-realised continuity in tone from one section to the next – impressive considering the fact that the cast and crew would only work together for a few days each year, and it’s aided, naturally, by a consistency of style; everything was shot on 35mm film – but crucially a flexibility existed during production that allowed Linklater to adapt the screenplay as the years passed, so that the background reflects the changing times. There is a smattering of liberal political commentary across the years, for example, starting with a rant by Mason Sr about 9/11 and the subsequent invasion of Iraq, an acknowledgement of Barack Obama’s historic election in 2008 and lastly (and perhaps less-politically) some interesting points made about technology and well-being. Linklater would write the segments on a yearly basis, which explains their currency, and it also meant that changes in the lives and personalities of the actors could inform the characters too; when Coltrane developed an interest in photography in real life, for example, it also became Mason Jr’s hobby in the movie.
It’s not difficult to pick the sudden jumps in time out, but they usually become apparent in the movie via small changes: the characters’ appearances (haircuts and facial hair in particular), the subjects they talk about, the videogames and consoles Mason Jr uses or the music that is played or listened to, for example. These are visual and aural clues, and there are also subtle shifts from year-to-year in the character development as well. Following the gradual changes that take place during their respective journeys through life is utterly fascinating, and often with regard to Mason Jr in particular they are conveyed via short, seemingly unimportant scenes: brutal sessions at the barber shop, the passing of a secret note round the classroom, an illicit flick through a lingerie catalogue, a solemn burial for a dead bird, etc. etc.
Thanks to some superb editing watching these years go by really is enthralling. (And also, at times, very sad indeed. Olivia’s realisation as Mason Jr is about to go to college that her 20s and 30s have flown by – “I just thought there would be more!” she cries – is an utterly heartbreaking moment. At times watching the movie is like being a close family friend, or relative, occasionally dropping by; I felt more attached to the four characters in this film – and particularly Mason Jr – than I have done to any other cinematic creation in recent years.) Fans of Linklater’s Before series will be familiar with the thrill of re-acquainting themselves with characters after a period of their lives has passed; in that case a jump of roughly nine years is shown when a new movie appears after the same amount of time, whereas here the feeling can be enjoyed twelve times in the space of two hours and forty minutes. The two most obviously-similar projects are Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, and Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, but there are few other directors that use the idea of time in such an interesting way as Linklater, and in Boyhood watching it pass becomes incredibly addictive.
Ever since his debut film, 1991’s lo-fi navel-gazer Slacker, the Texan has shown a great fondness for simply hanging around with his characters while they shoot the breeze (without the rat-a-tat verbal fizz of Tarantino, I guess, but the dialogue is often interesting nonetheless). That’s the same here; he isn’t interested in only showing moments of intense drama (though there are a few) and he lends equal weight to seemingly innocuous conversations and incidents involving two or three members of the family. You can feel Linklater’s own interest in these characters; as a result they seem three-dimensional, complex, constantly-changing and contradictory, but ultimately always the same people deep down. They are as close to real people as fictional cinematic drama gets, and so well-written that staple coming-of-age storylines involving drug experimentation, a first kiss, a first love, a first broken heart and so on are far more interesting to watch than they have been for many a year. These stages, or incidents, are dealt with in a mature, low-key and matter-of-fact fashion and make the comic scrambles for virginity loss and the like that we are usually fed look absolutely pointless.
The clear start and end – the film finishes with Mason Jr’s first day at college – enables us to see how much these people change during twelve years, but also the extent to which they do remain the same. By the end all of the characters are as different from their younger selves as you would expect them to be, but their personalities can still be traced back to the very first section, and the shared history informs the family dynamic brilliantly. By the end the passing of time (and the excellent, nuanced performances) makes us feel as if we know the people on screen intimately, and it’s odd to think that we have barely witnessed three hours of family life out of twelve whole supposed years. It’s as if the mind is playing a trick on the viewer: if we have seen these characters age without the use of CGI or make-up, we must have more than a slight understanding of their lives and personalities, right? But we don’t.
Without wishing to give too much away there are so many parts of this film that I enjoyed, or character developments that I appreciated, that I am extremely keen to see it for a second time. Watching Olivia’s relationships with two different men fail is sad, particularly as we know while seeing certain events unfold on screen that the inevitable post-marriage upheaval will mean yet another house move and a new school for Samantha and Mason Jr. (The first man she ends up with is called Bill (an excellent supporting performance by Marco Perella) and the second is called Jim (Steven Chester, also impressing).) Olivia’s story arc includes repeated mistakes as she tries to recreate a nuclear family, and it is at times harrowing to watch, but it is balanced by her transformation career-wise during the twelve years, which is inspiring. It’s equally interesting to see Mason Sr’s typical (but still, to me anyway, surprising) shift from being the kind of cool dad in a cool car who shows up once a fortnight into a more responsible family man, with the inevitable conservative dress sense and sensible vehicle that comes with the territory (though again I stress, the film never lets go of the essence of these people, and the old Mason Sr is still definitely there at the end). Though the focus is often on Mason Jr and – to a slightly lesser extent – Samantha, the two parents thankfully do not stand still in the corner and simply grow old; they change just as much as their teenage children.
There are plenty of playful moments in Boyhood: there’s a nice nod to the Harry Potter series that brings to mind the similar public development of Daniel Radcliffe and the rest of his co-stars, and you can’t help but think of Wiley Wiggins’s Mitch Kramer from Dazed And Confused as Mason Jr hits the high school years. (Keen-eyed fans of that earlier Linklater movie will possibly geek out at the appearance of David Blackwell in another liquor store-based scene here.) I also love the way the passing of time is relayed via video game developments, and also by music; at first, for example, it’s Coldplay, Britney Spears and The Hives. Later on it’s Cee-lo Green, Lady Gaga and Arcade Fire, but Linklater also lets a stream of music from earlier decades drift in and out of stereos and radios, just as it does in reality.
Coltrane’s central, occasionally-moody performance is magnificent to watch, and Arquette gives a career-best turn as Olivia. Is it too early to start muttering about Oscars for those two? Hawke and Lorelei Linklater are also very good indeed, and frankly there isn’t a single mis-step from the supporting cast, which perhaps comes from the director’s keenness to make every single character seem important; even those who appear only briefly at the beginning and end of the film are treated as if they are crucial to Mason’s life, rather than incidental faces in incidental places that will eventually be forgotten about.
Boyhood may well be seen as Linklater’s masterpiece, eventually, but at present he is still relatively young and I hope very much that he continues to make interesting and diverse movies for many years to come, if the results are as good as this. While his early films concentrated on periods of 24 hours or less, the recent attempts to make realistic (yet also artistic) statements about people and the way they change during the passing of longer periods of time are impressive. I’ve admired his Before series without actually loving it (for reasons detailed here), but making this is, in my eyes at least, an even more impressive feat. It’s a movie that I cannot wait to watch again. Sincere, honest, warm, sad, funny, inspiring, melancholic and touching, Boyhood is a must-see.
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Running Time: 166 minutes