Believe the hype. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is a masterful film; a miraculous achievement that is not like anything that has gone before it. The audacity of the project in itself is one thing, but the execution is exemplary. This is a movie that realises the potential of film as a story telling medium, tracking the lives of the various characters over 12 years in a wonderful exploration of growing up in America. Of course, Boyhood isn’t the first film in which a story has spanned such a period of time – heck, some films cover hundreds of years – but it is the first film to do so in real time. Shooting just 4 or 5 days a year over 12 years, Linklater has crafted a film that has more in common with documentary productions such as Michael Apted’s Up series than it does with other fictional films. This is the filmmaking equivalent of a tightrope without a safety net and, given the potential for the project to fall apart at any time should anybody involved decide to walk away, what Linklater and his collaborators have achieved is nothing short of remarkable and the finished product is a credit to all those who committed themselves to this unique undertaking.
Linklater is a talented director whose films have often drawn praise from critics without ever necessarily securing audience support or industry recognition at the level they perhaps deserve. From the likes of Slacker and Dazed and Confused – both of which play out in a 24-hour time period – to the animated innovation of Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, to music comedy School of Rock or the much more serious Fast Food Nation or the Before trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), a series which also collectively track the lives of characters over any years – albeit with significant gaps in time – Linklater has proven himself an accomplished and eclectic filmmaker. At face value Boyhood is such a simple premise; ostensibly about a boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his life experiences as he grows up. However, there is much more going on here for viewers as we connect the highs and the lows of Mason’s very recognisable life with similar moments and milestones from our own experiences. To watch Mason develop from a somewhat typical 6-year-old into a young man of quiet intelligence is fascinating and it is very easy to forget that what we are seeing is not real, despite the recognisable faces amongst the cast. Interestingly, Linklater avoids all the big moments upon which more typical films would focus. There is no plot as such, but plenty happens as life ebbs and flows through changing relationships, homes, jobs, schools and physical appearances; just like real life. There are moments of great humour, heartbreak and the inevitable awkwardness that permeates parent-child relationships (such as conversations about sex) and it is enormous credit to the cast that it all works so remarkably well as a piece of entertainment.
Coltrane is splendid in the lead role and both Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke deliver superbly nuanced performances as Mason’s parents, perhaps career-best turns from both. Even Linklater’s daughter Lorelei impresses as older sister Samantha. These characters, their experiences and their relationships seem real; these are very normal people, a rarity on cinema screens. None of the characters are perfect – Arquette’s Olivia repeatedly makes bad calls in her choice of men, while Hawke’s Mason Snr takes a long time to grow up – but they are utterly likeable and spending time with them is a joy. There are myriad supporting characters who play roles of varying import in the lives of the characters at particular moments, such as Olivia’s husbands (Marco Perella and Brad Hawkins), Mason’s high school girlfriend Sheena (Zoe Graham) or Mason Snr’s new wife Annie (Jenni Tooley). Even Charlie Sexton, one-time guitar prodigy and long-time member of Bob Dylan’s backing band, also features in the ensemble as Mason Snr’s rocker roommate.
Linklater possesses the ability to capture the youth experience better than most other filmmakers and that is on display again here as we witness the various interactions and experiences that Mason has in his journey towards adulthood. Whilst full of music, pop culture and political references that signpost the various points in history during the 12 years of production – iPods, Obama, Harry Potter, Star Wars – the film is never maudlin and never privileges one particular period in time over another. In fact, Boyhood is an utter joy from start to finish and the running time in excess of 2.5 hours seems mere minutes because you so much treasure the time spent in the company of these characters. In fact, I never wanted it to end.