2014, 166 mins, 15, Dir. Richard Linklater, starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Many of the very first short films made at the end of the nineteenth century consisted of basic and eminently familiar scenes; nothing more than a group of workers exiting a factory, or a mother entertaining her baby. Such unembellished productions were produced with the simple intention of depicting life, nothing more or less. Fictional films are frequently diverted from this original mission of cinema, either through quirks of genre or the mere presence of a plot contrivance. It is thus all the more beguiling to sit and watch Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, for it is a film that is distinguished not by any conspicuous visual spectacle but by the sheer, recognisable, unvarnished humanity of its subject matter.
Over 166 minutes we follow the physical and mental development of a character called Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a process that sees him grow from the age of five to eighteen. Mason navigates an often bewildering train of experiences at home, school, and out and around Texas. The ever-familiar rites of passage are observed: the awkward transition into puberty, experimentation with alcohol and smoking, tentative first relationships and acrimonious break-ups. Amidst an ever-changing family setting he finds continuity in his mother (Patricia Arquette), his estranged father (Ethan Hawke) who visits every other weekend, and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Much is difficult to watch, particularly the scenes of domestic violence that run on a thick layer of tension. Other parts of the film are elegantly charming, as in Mason’s propounding of his philosophy on the obsessive excesses of Facebook and internet culture.
What emerges from this perfectly ordinary life is an extraordinary cinematic power that binds you ceaselessly to the characters. Richard Linklater shot the film over twelve years, using exactly the same actors. It is a colossal, ambitious approach, and all the more satisfying that it succeeds. Ellar Coltrane’s performance is astonishingly assured and natural, making the entire film feel like an experiment in personal improvisation. He is Mason. There are no great speeches or sentimental posturing, even towards the end of our time with him. Yet he is also surrounded by a wealth of equally impressive performers; Ethan Hawke’s gradual transformation from youthful, estranged young father to a maturer man with a new family of his own is one of the greatest pleasures of the film. It is a fitting testament to Linklater’s ability to choose and direct his cast members that there is scarcely one moment that puts us at a remove from his characters; their world, with all its flaws and attractions, effectively becomes our own.
Boyhood acts not only as a chronicle of one life, but also as an assessment of its time. In one memorable scene, Mason’s father attempts to educate him and his sister on the political injustices of the Iraq war; they later request permission to place ‘Obama/Biden’ signs on Texan front lawns prior to the 2008 presidential election. The (predominantly electronic) fixations of our age emerge in school, college and the home. Linklater even rejects an orchestral score in favour of using various popular songs from the nineties and noughties. Although I found the inclusion of Coldplay a little irritating in the first few scenes, the soundtrack generally acts as an effective cultural indicator and is more of a benefit than a loss. Such techniques lend the production a time-capsule quality; indeed, it could almost be a documentary disguised as a fiction film.
The question of whether or not the film has some kind of consistent message is a pertinent one. A lot could be said about the presentation of alcohol as a destructive force in relationships; or perhaps comment could be made on the presentation of Mason as something of a counter-cultural figure in his late teens. But the closing moments of Linklater’s odyssey suggests that perhaps there is no ‘point’; it could be seen as nothing more than a truthful evocation of what it means to grow up in the modern world. Parents will love Boyhood for its exhibition of the transience of youth and the pains of looking after a child. Meanwhile, as a young person on the brink of attending university, I found the character of Mason irrepressibly easy to relate to, despite differences of culture and country. It is arguably there that Richard Linklater most succeeds. His style is bold, his actors are virtually indistinguishable from their characters; but it is the quiet domestic moments, the reassuring familiarity of home and school life, the entire mess of growing up, that most endears us. In short, the film is life.