Published on September 5th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Richard Linklater moves film forward again with Boyhood, which follows a family (and the actors playing them) for 12 years to document childhood and more.
When I was about 12, I lived in a suburb under construction. My friends and I explored the skeletons of houses being built, after the workers had gone home for the day, using them for secret gathering places to do things like tell lies and smoke cigarettes. I’m sure we also probably caused some property damage as bored, suburban kids are wont to do. There is a scene in Richard Linklater’s Boyhood that has his main character, Mason, and some friends, doing much the same thing. Though Linklater and Mason are telling the story of a Texas kid in the 90s, and I was a Canadian kid in the 80s, it’s the universal nature of moments like this in Boyhood that make it a thing of nostalgia, with an almost documentary feel.
You’ve probably heard by now that Boyhood was a grand experiment in film; it was shot over a 12-year period, telling a fictional story that followed the same actors each year as they got older. It hasn’t really been done like this before. Sure, there’s the UP documentaries from Michael Apted that follow a group of British kids from seven to (so far) 56. And we watched Daniel Radcliffe et al grow up in the Harry Potter series (which features in Boyhood, tellingly). Hell, even Linklater’s own Before Trilogy checks in with its characters every nine years. But Boyhood was a concerted effort to watch one boy grow up, in one film.
The movie is so much more than the gimmick it sounds like. Boyhood documents life between those years as we watch Mason (played by Ellar Coltrane) grow up, but we also watch a family grow together, from the promise of childhood, to the realities of adulthood. We follow not only Mason, but his sister Samantha (played by Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter) and others in their orbit, or rather, others who come in and out of their orbit as people do in real life.
The movie doesn’t use any kind of supers or voiceover to tell you what year it is or how old Mason is. Sometimes you can tell by the certain cultural touch points like music or haircuts, or the obviousness of actors aging, but you’re really expected to observe closely to follow time’s march. Linklater does a brilliant turn by using Ethan Hawke’s character, the in again, out again father, as a way to harness exposition. He pops in to ask his kids what has been going on in their lives; and though that seems heavy-handed when I explain it, it’s actually used in very elegant ways in the film.
Boyhood also reminded me a lot of Tree of Life, but in a much more concrete, less expressionistic way. It’s as much about raising kids as it is about being one. Patricia Arquette (who is amazing as Mason and Samantha’s mother) has a moment near the end where she’s almost done raising her kids and realizes that life is a series of milestones. Once she’s done raising her kids, all she has left to do is wait for death. I laughed out loud at this, because I think about this all the time in a joking way, especially having had my own son recently, near the end of my 30s. Once he’s out of the house, I’ll be nearing 60. It’s the kind of scene that can be heartbreaking or hilarious, depending on who and where you are.
The film is full of these clever little moments and it’s remarkably put together for something shot in chunks so far apart. The idea of plotting comes in and out like characters from Mason’s life — something that can make a film feel like it has no point or momentum in the wrong hands. But in Boyhood, it usually works very well. Boyhood doesn’t go for cheap and easy connections and callbacks that would make it so obviously plotted, making it feel more like life and less like it’s following a screenplay guide.
Sure, the movie has things that don’t work or that feel forced here and there, but it also doesn’t go for cheap histrionics and melodrama. And oddly enough, it’s a long film at 2 hours and 45 minutes — yet, it never feels like it’s wasting your time. Unlike some big Hollywood movies these days that are pointlessly long (ahem, Transformers) or take an hour and a half plot and stretch it into two three hour movies (ahem, The Hobbit, Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Twilight: Whatever the Last Ones Were Called).
Some reviewers have posited that you can see all of Linklater’s periods in the film, including a slump in the middle and a later career resurgence. I disagree. As I said, there are some things that work better than others in the film, but I thought that Boyhood was an incredibly cohesive movie that feels the same throughout. Even without standard ideas of drama and script structure, the reason the film succeeds so well is this cumulative effect. It is a young life lived, and though Mason and those around him change over the years, the film feels constant in its portrayal, much like life itself.