What’s it about? Boyhood is Richard Linklater’s newest and most intricate film project to date. It’s something that’s never been done before, a film fabricating a fictitious story that spans over a real time of 12 years, following a little boy from his childhood to the start of his college days.
Verdict: Meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane), he is a boy like any other. At the age of six he’s riding his bike down the streets of a typical American suburban neighbourhood alongside his best friend. His slightly silly and sort of bossy sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), his fun-loving father (Ethan Hawke) and his independent mother (Patricia Arquette) are all a part of this boy’s life. They are the perfect example of an average American family.
His parents married too young and are now divorced, earning average wages in average jobs to pay their mortgage and living expenses, with the mother taking care of the kids and the father just swooping in once in a while. When Mom decides on a fresh start, the three of them move town and embark on a journey, and we the audience follows them on this 166-minute long journey, a journey called life.
And so we watch Mason grow up. As a kid this means changing schools, having discussions about chores, having the inevitable and painfully honest talk with his dad about contraception, going on camping trips, as well as being forced into a new haircut (and hating how it turns out). As he reaches adolescence, we see him chatting to a girl he likes, making out with another, giving drinking and smoking a try, getting inspirational talks from his teacher and boss, finding his passion in the art of photography, then falling in love for the first time.
All of these seem like ordinary, random moments. Most of which feel like we’ve all been there, done that. This is what makes Boyhood anything but an ordinary film – the ability to turn something so simple into something special. A feeling of nostalgia and longing for life will simultaneously overwhelm the viewer. As each year passes there is a visible change in hair cuts and styles, and at one point Mason’s voice transforms from a boyish to a manly tone, but the edits from one year to another are as smooth as could be, never interrupting the flow of the story. It feels as if there hasn’t ever been such an authentic story about life.
The conversation about being stuck in the in-between of social networks and real life is one we’ve all had a thousand times before, so full and devoid of meaning at the same time. While sometimes seemingly superficial, sometimes profound, Boyhood is most certainly one thing: a representation of a simple life that almost every viewer can relate to. Perhaps that’s what makes the film as powerful as it is.
Yet it is also the fact, that we visibly see Mason grow up, as it is Ellar Cotrane playing the same role over 12 years, like it’s never been done before. It’s impossible not to get attached to the boy turning into a semi-cool teenager and then a young man, especially when seeing life through his eyes. When he sees his mother fall in love with husband number two and three or when he looks at his father judgingly every now and again. The main ingredient of the magic in the film is seeing the family dynamics change and evolve. They never seem unauthentic and there’s always a truth to their interactions.
It’s the result of shooting the film over such a lengthy period and making the actors grow closer naturally. As the actors live through parts of their lives together, so do their characters, touching upon the main two layers of the story – growing up and growing older. While Mason and Samantha face the trials and tribulations of maturing, their parents go through their own process of aging. What is split into different sets of characters in the film, is actually a seamless transition in real life. One might not even fully realize, at what point we stop growing up and start growing older. At the time it will just be another state of being.
Shooting the film over 12 years with the same cast and the same team was a big risk for everyone involved. And it couldn’t have turned out better. It’s a story you don’t want to end, a film you could watch forever. Patricia Arquette remarked in one of the film’s featurette videos that she secretly did not want to finish shooting the film and wished they could have gone on forever, and never shown the film to an audience. We can be glad that they did.
That the characters grow on the audience members as much as they do, can surely be attributed to the great casting choices. Cast at the age of six and starting to act at the age of seven, Ellar Coltrane grew into the role of Mason, first by playing the role and later contributing to the dialogues of the script and making the role his own. His portrayal is nothing but genuine, firstly as a child that stops and observes the world around him, and later as a rather introverted and thoughtful adolescent.
Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter is not at the centre of the film, but watching her grow into a fine young woman is just as beautiful. Ethan Hawke manages a heartfelt performance that still brings a lot of light humour to the film, while Patricia Arquette is a loving mother, independent and weak at the same time. She goes back to college to get her degree, and successfully ends up teaching at university herself, and it’s hard not to get teary eyed and feel proud of her, like her son does.
Political change is also present in the film when the kids’ father knows the right thing to do is to “vote for anybody but Bush” and a couple of years later we see them help him put up Obama signs in other people’s yards. There’s also an abundance of pop culture references, such as the release of yet another Harry Potter book, the comedy clip “The Landlord” starring Will Ferrell, and a teenage conversation mentioning Twilight. However, Linklater mainly measures time in music, as every year is marked by the sound of its most popular tunes. It starts with Lorelei Linklater’s squeeling rendition of “Oops I did it again”, continues with Soulja Boy’s online hit “Crank That”, the joyous “1901” by Phoenix, the electronic keyboard sounds of Vampire Weekend’s “One (Blake’s Got A New Face)” and Gotye’s somewhat annoying melody “Somebody That I Used To Know” until the film jumps to the present with recent songs such as “Hero” by Family of the Year or “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk (N.B. “Get Lucky” was included in the version shown at the Berlin Film Festival, but edited out of the most recent cut).
Questions about the meaning of life are predominant, but never fully answered. Ethan Hawke comes closest in the end, when he admits that “we’re all just improvising”, we’re all just winging it. It’s all about simply living life, taking each day as it comes. Without enforcing morals or life lessons on the viewer, Boyhood is a perfect portrait of life today. For generations to come it will be a document of what it was like to live in the noughties. If Richard Linklater hadn’t pushed for his 12-year long project, we may never have experienced such a wonderful way of showing the simplicity and beauty of life all at once.
Final Words: Linklater’s new film is a masterpiece that sums up what it is to be alive, to grow up and to age. It’s the little moments that matter and complete the movie. With 2014 halfway passed, if there’s a single film to be seen this year, it is definitely and without a doubt Boyhood.
Boyhood is released in UK cinemas on 11 July 2014.