The mind boggles at the risks director Richard Linklater must have taken in order to make Boyhood. This is a drama shot over the course of more than a decade, following the same group of actors as they mature and change with each passing year. The passing of time – and how it affects relationships – is something Linklater flirted with before in his Before trilogy, but never to the groundbreaking extent seen here.
Boyhood is told from the perspective of six-year-old Mason (Ellar Coltrane), an imaginative, somewhat distracted boy more fascinated by the world around him than his homework, which he often leaves crumpled up in his school rucksack. His mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) has little to do with Mason’s father, Mason Senior (a brilliantly louche Ethan Hawke), and instead becomes involved with a series or men who are, each in their own way, unpleasant or deeply flawed.
Mason’s precocious sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) seems to somehow glide a few feet above the turbulence of family life, turning in excellent grades and also proving to be better at sports than her younger brother. Mason, on the other hand, is simply too observant not to be affected by what goes on around him; there’s one scene where he notices, in a single exchange, a glimmer of affection between Olivia and one of her teachers at college. Linklater brilliantly captures the look of suspicion in Mason’s eyes, before, one scene later, we see Olivia and the college teacher (Marco Perella) return from their honeymoon in Paris.
The sharpness of Linklater’s filming and editing highlight the artificiality in just about every previous drama of this kind. We’re so used to seeing characters played by multiple actors, or slathered in heavy make-up to fake the process of ageing, that it’s almost shocking to see Boyhood‘s cast change over the film’s 12 year period. Imperceptibly at first, Mason and Samantha grow from wide-eyed kids into sulky teenagers, and finally into full-grown, disillusioned adults. Hawke’s character begins as a swaggering, vaguely reckless Pontiac GTO-driving songwriter into a beige middle-aged man with a moustache, while Arquette goes from penniless young single mother to bright student to psychology teacher, flitting from place to place as relationships build and then crumble.
Linklater’s unique approach to making his film – which involved getting the cast back for a few days’ shooting each year – is innovative and eye-catching, but it’s by no means a gimmick. In Linklater’s hands, Boyhood becomes not just a typical-coming-of-age drama, but a far deeper, more philosophical film about the struggles of existence, from early childhood to late middle-age. Towards the film’s final third, Mason is almost the same age as Olivia was at the beginning, when she was a young mother keen to go back to college in order to make a better life for herself and her kids.
Mason wonders aloud what the meaning of passing through the various milestones of life really mean, even as Olivia tearfully asks, as Mason prepares to leave home and go to college, just where all that time slipped by without her noticing. Ellar Coltrane has rightly been praised for his performance as Mason, and Ethan Hawke is as reliably incisive and natural as he always is as the kind-hearted yet largely absent father. But Patricia Arquette emerges as Boyhood‘s true revelation. Her turn as Olivia is sad and delicate, and through her, Linklater captures the strange amalgam of frustration, joy and melancholy of being a parent.
Boyhood touches on all these notions with the same subtlety as his earlier dramas, with the passing of time suggested through a gradually changing soundtrack, evolving technology and conversations about the politics of the day. In many cases, these exchanges are disarmingly effective – one fireside chat between Mason Jr and Mason Sr, about the unlikelihood of a sequel to Return Of The Jedi, is sublime – and serve as a counterpoint to the occasional flashes of genuine menace.
A drama of rare insight and intelligence, Boyhood is all the more sublime for being so individual. It’s difficult to think of another director daring enough or just plain curious enough to make a film like this. In this respect, Mason could be seen as Linklater’s stand-in: fascinated by small details and human quirks, he becomes obsessed with capturing those moments on camera, and devotes his life to photography with single-minded absorption. When a teacher approaches Mason one day and suggests to him that he’s spending too many hours in the dark room and not enough time studying, what he says could be a manifesto for Boyhood itself.
“Any dipshit can shoot pictures,” the teacher says. “But art? Now that’s difficult. It’s what you can bring to it that sets you apart.”
The teacher’s right. With Boyhood, Linklater once again establishes himself as a truly unique filmmaker. This is arguably his finest film to date, and one of the most moving films of the year so far. A true work of art.
Boyhood is out in UK cinemas on the 11th July.
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