So. Boyhood. Again. I should temper any further cries of ‘film of the year’ with the caveats that a) I have only seen a small percentage of all the movies released in 2014 to date and b) I am fully aware that every single person reading this has different taste to me and no-one actually, really, truly cares what my film of the year is anyway. In fact the bestowing of the unsought-after ‘Stu’s Film Of The Year’ accolade matters so little that I could in fact pick any film released during 2014 and the exact same number of people would care: Zero. Zilch. Nada. Donut.
Ride Along, then, is without question the film of the year, but Boyhood is currently a very close second.
Richard Linklater’s recent movie has been lavished with so much hyperbolic praise since its appearance at film festivals and its limited release in cinemas during the summer that presumably anyone who watches it for the first time now will experience a degree of disappointment. That’s no surprise, though; praise such as ‘Stu’s Film Of The Year’ is relatively muted when compared to some supposedly reputable sources: The New Yorker, for example, described the experience of watching Boyhood as akin to “having a never-ending, tantric foursome with three beautiful angels while listening to a jam by a celestial in-house band made up of Joplin (vocals), Hendrix (guitar), Bonham (drums) and Entwhistle (bass)”, while here in the UK one reviewer writing for The Times suggested that anyone attempting to make art in any shape or form in future was “wasting my time, their own time and all the time belonging to everyone else, from now until the end of everything”.
Joking aside, some of the proclamations that greeted Boyhood’s arrival in July were pretty bizarre. In particular I found the contradictory suggestion that this film is ‘a new American classic’ somewhat hard to digest, but I can see why the movie has inspired many – myself included – to champion its greatness. And, despite a few faults, Linklater’s film is great: in its scope, in terms of its ambition and also with regard to the length of the project, Boyhood demands your admiration.
Watching it for a second time was certainly something I found to be worthwhile, not least because I enjoyed it again. I also noticed plenty that I’d missed the first time. I hadn’t made the connection that the opening and closing shots of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) staring into space and contemplating the sky are essentially the same, a cinematic summation of Wordsworth’s famous line that the child is the father of the man, albeit filmed in two different locations and twelve years apart. There’s other stuff echoing across the years, too: the early, repeated shots of Mason Jr staring out of the car window towards the friends and step-siblings he is leaving behind, for example, results in his own detachment from the idea of a ‘home’ and his disinterest in personal possessions when he drives off to university. The very first conversation the boy has with Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is about his work ethic, which is brought up again later in his photography class and in his temporary job as a waiter. Then, more obviously, there are the echoes of his interest in graffiti, from childish vandalism of a storm drain to teenage tag-writing in his bedroom. Some lines and visual clues give away future events: for example Mason Jr’s own sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) plants a seed of doubt in the mind of his girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) about their future college year with an off-hand comment about the number of good-looking boys in her dormitory. I missed it first time round, and it explains her later actions.
The point of all this is that it all feeds into the consistency across the 12 years depicted. The events shown in Boyhood flow together seamlessly, a kind of visual poetry subtly and not-so-subtly aided by all those other signifiers – games consoles, haircuts, and so on – which reveal that time is passing but some things are staying the same. It also indicates an incredible degree of forward planning by Linklater; I’m not suggesting that he had the full twelve years mapped out at the start of the project, but after watching the film for a second time I have even more appreciation for the smartness of his script. It is incredibly rich in detail.
I mentioned in my first review that the characters are so well-realised it feels like you know them intimately by the end of the movie, as if you were a family friend or relative. Despite covering more than a decade of personal development (both in terms of the adults and the children) it’s easy to forget we only see 160 clipped, distilled minutes of their lives – some events are large and significant, others small but equally revealing. After my second viewing I was more impressed with the impression created of a family as a whole (despite the estrangement of Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke)). Coltrane looks and acts like a product of his mother and father, sharing certain characteristics and physical resemblances with both, although unfortunately I have more reservations now about the casting of Lorelei Linklater; her acting is fine, in my opinion, but she does not physically resemble Hawke or Arquette at all, and it bothered me more the second time.
It’s also a problem for me that the character of Samantha gradually disappears from sight as the film progresses; she seems integral to the first hour and a half but is unfortunately sidelined for the last sixty minutes. Despite the film’s title, as I mentioned previously all four of these characters are important, not just Mason Jr, so it’s a shame that Samantha fades into the background as time passes. Even when she does appear it seems as though she is very much a secondary concern, and all the attention in those scenes is on Mason Jr or Olivia. Her relationship with her father is also under-developed: the last meaningful conversation they share on screen is a deliciously awkward one about her first boyfriend and contraception, which takes place when Samantha is approximately 15 years old.
I did appreciate the fact that the director invests a lot in seemingly minor characters. There’s a middling scene where the teenage Mason Jr and two friends hang out with two older boys who encourage the younger trio to drink and brag about (non-existent) sexual experiences. For two or three minutes this feels like a film about all five of the characters on screen, yet three of them aren’t seen again after this point. Similarly, Olivia’s partners seem incredibly important while on screen, and then suddenly – as in life – they are just (bad) memories. When some characters do re-appear – friends of Olivia or Mason Sr, for example – it feels surprising, as if it’s a twist.
Linklater has created a fresh take on the coming-of-age film that also slots well into his canon of work: there’s the Texas setting, most obviously, but also the little nods to his earlier films that fans will enjoy as well as it being another meditation on the passing of time. My second viewing confirmed that, for me anyway, Richard Linklater has made a great movie here; one that – eventually – will probably replace Ride Along in my affections.
[In case you missed it at the start, my first review of Boyhood is here.]
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Running Time: 166 minutes