Released 2014. Written and directed by Richard Linklater. Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke.
If you know anything about Boyhood before going in, you’ll know that it’s a hugely ambitious project that follows a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), as he ages from six to eighteen years old, along with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and occasionally-present father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). It doesn’t switch out actors to depict the children ageing. Richard Linklater has been following them for twelve years, semi-improvising a narrative along the way. It’s a small, intimate film with little drive yet it requires three hours to tell its story. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and you absolutely need to see it.
Actually, you need to see it twice.
Boyhood requires two viewings because the first time around it feels slight. It tells its story through three hours of vignettes, individual scenes that collectively build an overall impression of a single boy’s life amongst his friends and family, and during changes such as gaining and losing stepfathers and moving home repeatedly. (You’re unlikely to find them being referred to as vignettes by those connected to the film, but the scenes are linked loosely enough, and focused enough on separate ideas, that it’s a reasonable description of them.) The title is a little misleading – the film is certainly about a boy growing up, but it’s more wide-ranging than that. It’s an ensemble piece at points, and although almost everything is seen through Mason’s eyes, his parents and sister are far more than supporting characters. Boyhood doesn’t examine what it means to be a boy as opposed to a girl to any significant degree. It’s about what it means to be human, and a part of society.
The curiosity at the film’s core – watching a child age for two-thirds of his life – while not a gimmick, is not the silver bullet for achieving cinematic truth that you could be forgiven for expecting it to be. (Whatever that means. Not wise to have an expectation you can’t even explain.) It possesses a degree of novelty value that is somewhat, although not lethally, distracting. The children’s physical transformations are fascinating to observe but in noticing them I felt that I wasn’t paying attention to what was important about the film, and it took a second viewing to overcome that. It doesn’t help that the children aren’t especially good actors when they’re young, and over the years improve little. While their ageing is visually captivating and intriguing, the characters of Mason and Samantha feel slim, considering the attention paid to them. Perhaps it’s foolish to expect more from them – Boyhood seeks to portray life openly and without artifice, and young children aren’t fully-fledged people. They become them. But I can’t hide feeling that there could have been more to Mason and Samantha.
It’s far more interesting to watch Olivia’s gradual transformation as she copes with raising two children, working and returning to school in order to better provide for them, marrying an alcoholic and abusive second husband, and constant financial worries. To allow oneself to be shown to age into one’s mid-forties during a single film would be daunting for any actress, even more so considering that Olivia does so in a decidedly non-Hollywood, airbrush-free way that is strikingly frank. The lines that grow around her eyes and the paunch she carries tell stories of a life marked, in part, by poor treatment from others, poor decisions she has made, and a soupçon of bad luck to boot. By the time she breaks down and cries as Mason packs to leave for college, we’ve been with her through twelve years of hard work and more responsibility and stress than anybody should be expected to deal with. She doesn’t cry because Mason leaving represents a blessed relief. She cries because he flippantly refuses to pack in his bag the first photograph he, now a photography student, ever took, a memento of who he used to be and how he’s matured in which he sees no value. He’s too happy to leave home, blind to what his mother has been through to raise him. She deserves just this moment of understanding, but is denied it. It’s truly tragic.
(It’s also one of the very few times that we get a glimpse of the world from a perspective that isn’t Mason’s own: he has left the room and we see Olivia burst into tears alone. Mason’s not a bad person, but like all teenagers, he can be unpleasantly, unthinkingly self-absorbed.)
The film also feels slight because of how it’s constructed. There’s no narrative drive to speak of, the vignettes meandering between observations and aspects of life, slim on their own but combining to create a film that’s more than the sum of its parts. A Scanner Darkly was similar, despite having a more rigid plot, and not being familiar enough with Linklater’s other work I’m relying on a friend of mine to assure me that it’s something of a trademark for him. It’s a realisation that has made me more satisfied with Boyhood, because I was until then having trouble reconciling what a great experience I had in the cinema with the vague feeling of deflation I had when thinking back on it. It’s also something that that crucial second viewing helped me to overcome. (Trust me. That second viewing is everything.)
Boyhood‘s visual design is basic and uncomplicated. Shots are typically stable, usually tripod-mounted. There’s no stylish colour grading or dramatic angles. Few shots seek to be visually arresting or beautiful (though that’s not to imply that the film is made without care). I’m sure that this is in part because if you’re shooting a movie over twelve years the last thing you want is to devise an aesthetic that’s complicated to maintain, but it feels perfect for the film. If Linklater is trying to dig at meaningful questions about life and human relationships, no amount of glitz will help. To see such a steady, clear image is to be told that there are no shenanigans here. Nothing is being covered up. This is the truth, unvarnished. Of course, this isn’t really the case – it’s a film with a written narrative, a director, an editor; of course it’s artifice – but it conveys earnestness and encourages you to trust it.
Linklater makes use of cultural phenomena with varying degrees of success. Seeing Mason play a Game Boy Advance, or his sister sing a Britney Spears song, feels cheap and even a little tacky. It’s the stuff that, if you were trying to tell this story today, you’d leave out, because it dates the film horribly instead of smartly and appears to have little purpose other than to announce the year without putting up a subtitle. Sometimes, though, Linklater transcends this and captures something with real significance. Mason Sr., for instance, is an Obama supporter in 2008 and has Mason and Samantha walk around a neighbourhood erecting Obama/Biden signs in front gardens. In a sharp, concise vignette, we’re first treated to a Republican disparaging “Barack Hussain Obama” and threatening Mason with being shot for trespassing (when the kid was only knocking on a front door); second, a young mother talks effusively but vaguely about how society needs to “pull together”, and how cute Obama is to the point where she dreams about him. It only takes a minute but it conveys an entire zeitgeist, and particularly the frenzy of optimism that defined the Obama campaign, through just a few moments of insightful observation (Obama’s appeal as a sexual object is something I don’t recall ever having been articulated at the time, but as soon as the woman suggests it, it seems so obvious).
On a more intriguing note, an early scene shows Olivia reading Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone to Mason and Samantha; later, they queue up in costume to buy the sixth book of the series. A whole generation of children grew up alongside Harry, Hermione and Ron, and the film series is another example of seeing children mature on screen. In retrospect it’s an obvious set of stories for Mason and Samantha to read, but when shooting commenced in 2002, four years after the first book’s publication, Harry Potter wasn’t quite the phenomenon it later became. There’s no denying that it was popular, though, and there probably isn’t much luck in how well it suits Boyhood as Mason’s narrative of choice, but it’s a nice parallel to observe nonetheless.
It feels so rare to see a divorced couple depicted as forgivingly as in Boyhood (though FX’s Louie also springs to mind). Mason and Samantha live with their mother, with Mason Sr. the father who sees them every other weekend. Only when we first meet Mason Sr. do we glimpse the possibility that Linklater might be inviting us to see him as the absent father who only shows up when it suits him, treats the kids well to ensure their favour, then returns them to their despairing mother who resents him. It’s an impression that doesn’t last long – his relationship with Olivia is one in which polite conversation masks no deep hatred, simply that two people who had children at a young age have naturally grown apart. (Indeed, they were already going their separate ways at the time – it’s revealed that Olivia became pregnant from breakup sex with Mason Sr., the lesson for Mason Jr. being to only enjoy breakup sex while wearing a condom.) They don’t rub along perfectly smoothly, but it’s clear that the love they share for their children overrides their differences and allows them – and perhaps forces them – to co-operate.
Something that Linklater does very effectively is to underplay almost everything. There are no set-pieces, no moments of high drama or tension. Even when Olivia’s second husband, the dangerous drunk, is lashing out, throwing glasses and plates at Mason for an imagined slight, it’s portrayed steadily and unwaveringly rather than ramped up for effect. He’s a threatening character partially because of how calmly he’s observed exercising a gradually tighter and tighter grip over his family, and when Olivia recues Mason and Samantha from him, it’s similar in tone. She doesn’t bring the police, nobody throws a punch or takes anyone hostage. It’s tense but not overdone, and they drive away before you know it. There are many moments in Boyhood that, like this moment, would be more heavily dramatised in other films, not to mention several first meetings between characters that could easily serve as the foundations for entire narratives, but here are often forgotten. Life doesn’t work the way Hollywood wants it to, because Hollywood needs it to be as exciting and full of conflict and drama as possible. In Boyhood, those Hollywood moments are at times implied but then suppressed or ignored, and it feels achingly authentic. (A scene in which Olivia meets a man who she encouraged years earlier to go to college and improve his life, is conspicuous precisely because it’s such a cliché.)
If the ending is the conceit, as a certain big green writer is fond of saying, then it’s a maxim demonstrated emphatically in Boyhood, whose closing line succinctly summarises everything at which it succeeds, and everywhere it eschews convention. Mason sits on a hillside with a girl he’s just met on arrival at college, mood slightly mellowed by a brownie with a special ingredient, beginning what could be a beautiful friendship. In the serene sunset, she muses, “You know how everyone’s always saying ‘Seize the moment’? I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way round. You know? Like… the moment seizes us.” Smiling, Mason adds, “Yeah… yeah, I know. It’s constant. The moments. It’s just… it’s like it’s always right now, you know?” And that’s Boyhood. Every single moment of the film is enchanting, candid, humorous, keenly observed and original. At first I wished they’d have cohered more strongly, but on that all-important second viewing I realised that this isn’t a film with a beginning, middle and end. It begins six years into a life, and ends at the start of a new chapter. Boyhood captures how humans live, and life isn’t constructed carefully so that bits at the end mirror bits at the beginning, and you don’t have foreshadowing and twists and reversals and all the things we encode into films to deliver neat little stories that open up nicely to attentive textual analysis. Things just happen. All you can do is react in the present.