In 2002, Richard Linklater decided on the final shot of a film that would take 12 years to shoot and would follow the apparently typical life of a boy, Mason, growing up in modern America. Casting 6-year-old Ellar Coltrane in the central role, Linklater began shooting what would eventually become Boyhood.
No stranger to projects made over extended periods of time, Linklater’s Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight) were released at 9-year intervals following the same two characters as they grew into middle age. Boyhood displays the same temporal nous as the other films: beginning with Coldplay, and ending with Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs via the likes of Soulja Boy and High School Musical, Linklater subtly uses music to indicate how far through the film is of the 2002-2013 period covered. Other milestones that the audience passes along with Mason are the midnight releases of each Harry Potter, Gameboys, the invasion of Iraq. For a viewer of university age, Mason’s adolescence will be perfectly in alignment with their own, giving the film a nostalgia factor unlike anything else. One gets the impression that this is a film that will be watched in the future as a record of what 00s America was like.
By turns, the film is funny and sad, tense and playful. To maintain the tone over 12 years of shooting is a gargantuan task in itself, and one to which Linklater proves more than equal. With subject matter ranging from kissing girls, to smoking weed, to leaving home for college, the film would become contrived or clichéd in the hands of lesser directors, but instead Linklater presents a series of highly evocative developmental moments – when Mason’s voice breaks one feels like a grandparent who has blinked and found their grandchildren grown up. The interplay between film and reality also offers some pleasingly prescient moments, like when Mason and his dad wonder aloud if another Star Wars film will ever be made, and when his dad warns him that no good will come of the Iraq invasion. As for Mason himself, it’s hard to find enough superlatives to describe Coltrane’s performance. He constantly surprises, turning from a nervy young boy into a self-assured man. At fourteen or so, he suddenly appears not to be able to deliver any lines, and one worries before realising it’s just Coltrane playing a perfectly-observed teenager. The risk the director took in casting him at six pays off many times over; whatever Coltrane goes on to do next, he’s one to watch.
Despite the film’s title, though, Boyhood isn’t just about Mason. His sister Samantha, played with breathtaking consistency over the 12-year period by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, is an almost-parallel study of girlhood. Hilariously precocious, we see her at eight, singing Britney Spears into a hairbrush, at fourteen, with dyed hair and a fierce pout, at twenty, with her new college boyfriend. Changing by turns, yet spookily recognisable from the opening years of the film, her chemistry with Coltrane is as palpable as one would expect from two actors who have grown up together on-screen.
The separated parents of the family, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, present their own duality, in that their reactions to events around them seem familiar to the audience, yet these situations are filtered through the eyes of their children in a way that manages to evoke one’s own childhood so accurately that at times it’s almost uncomfortable. The two are phenomenal, beginning as worn-out, uncertain young parents, and ending as worn-out, unflappable veteran parents. Like his son, Hawke’s Mason Sr. gradually matures too. The boy who first worked with Linklater on Before Sunrise is gone, replaced by an actor of immense, understated talent. Not to be outdone, Arquette has matured on-screen and off. Her own experience of marriage, childbirth and divorce during the filming of Boyhood lends her character a dignified maternity despite the fact that, as Mason observes, his mother is just as confused as he is.
Boyhood is a study of the human condition reminiscent of Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life but rather than drawing that film’s parallels between childhood, creation and religion, Linklater keeps the subject matter decidedly mundane. As a result, the film loses beauty but gains poignancy, and mundanity becomes universally relevant. One of the most striking things about Boyhood is how similar being young is for everyone, and how alike experiences of growing up are. It’s impossible not to be acutely aware that the story is happening every day, everywhere. As one of the best films about childhood, perhaps ever, what Boyhood represents in filmmaking terms is a landmark, a project in which art is no longer hostage to practicality and thus can find full expression. It is not to be missed.