Release Date: July 11th, 2014 (UK); August 15th, 2014 (US)
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette
For many, Boyhood is the latest film to define a generation. They’re right, but it doesn’t hold fort at just one generation. The beauty in Richard Linklater’s 12-year undertaking is its accessibility, its exclusivity. This is a film that will surely speak to many different people from many different age groups. It could have easily been named Girlhood, or Fatherhood, or Motherhood because it is all of those things. As an early-90s kid myself, Linklater’s piece plays like the ultimate reflection of growing up, and clocking in at 165 minutes it feels like one of cinema’s finest works.
It’s 2002 and six-year-old Mason Jnr (Ellar Coltrane) is living with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). While the siblings annoy each other with Britney Spears renditions and blame games, mum is actively striving to open up new avenues and offer them a better life. We watch the family move (a frequent occurrence) across Texas to accommodate Olivia’s studies, at which point dad Mason Snr (Ethan Hawke) reappears.
This manoeuvring of people and place is what drives Boyhood. Every character is jockeying for something and even though the piece spans 12 years and a variety of locations, that something often remains constant. From the moment we meet little Mason staring ponderously at the sky, it is apparent that we’re in the presence of a youngster not entirely resolved on which path he wants to take in life. He’s just a child at this point but Mason’s lack of enlightenment soon evolves into indecision as relates to the future; photography does take prominence, but it is tough to tell if his heart is truly in picture-taking. As the years roll on, Coltrane carries Mason’s ambiguity with increasing fervour. It’s just enough to generate intrigue and mirror reality — a darkroom chat in school highlights that angsty unmoved-yet-not-entirely-disengaged trait common in teenagers — but not so much as to push us or those around him away.
His sister Samantha is different. Despite the camera’s fondness for Mason Jnr, Samantha gets ample screen time to evolve and as a result her desire for independence gains more clarity. She is the older of the two and therefore tends to champion a greater degree of worldly awareness over her brother; one of the most cringeworthy scenes is also one of the most endearing, where Mason Snr communicates strategies to avoid teenage pregnancy. Lorelei Linklater sells the awkwardness brilliantly, though in truth her chat with Ethan Hawke was probably just as embarrassing in real life.
Hawke is stellar as dad Mason Snr, embodying the character whose behaviour differs most between the opening and closing frames. That’s not to say he becomes the antithesis of his younger self, but rather a more seasoned version with the same emotional clout. One of Linklater’s greatest triumphs in making Boyhood is affording his characters a robust sense of identity across the 12 years. Above anything else, Mason Snr simply wishes to be a good father and it is such a joy watching him thrive in the role. He is never a bad father per se but the underlying guilt harpooned to him as a result of his separation from Olivia is palpable, so much so that he makes humorous yet immature jokes in front of his children to dodge the subject (“Your mother is a piece of work, I think you know that by now”).
Olivia, on the other hand, is wound up fairly tightly, she fulfilling most of the parenting duties whilst her ex-husband works away in Alaska, frozen from reality. Unlike with the others, we need to wait until Olivia’s final words to really grasp hold of what she has been pursuing over the years. Patricia Arquette delivers those last few lines with the utmost sincerity and pain, and at that point we realise her character’s embedded desire has always been for something more. Having lived a life for her children, it becomes clear to Olivia that she wants to live for herself, at least just a little. It is the most heartbreaking point in a film roused by heartfelt moments, one that poignantly captures parenthood for the uninitiated such as myself.
Each of the aforementioned characteristics and motivations are universal, the kind that we can all relate to either personally or in passing. Appropriately, in a film about relationships it is the interactions between individuals that really inject spark and vitality. Linklater always means to coax emotion from the scenes he creates, be it in the form of infectious laughter, genuine solemnity or, as is often the case, foolproof charm. We get as much out of Olivia’s longing for normality as she watches her children drive away for the weekend as we do from a car-set conversation where the siblings reverse their father’s parental diatribe back onto him. The chemistry between all four main actors is indelible.
One thing that Boyhood ain’t is heavy. The filmmakers’ efforts — greatly aided by Sandra Adair’s fluent editing — encourage a true sense of lightness. When we’re not chuckling at the absurdity of now outdated pop culture trends (I’ll take Harry Potter over Soulja Boy any day of the week), wit comes in the form of almost caper-ish humour; the sneaky removal of a pro-McCain signpost wouldn’t look out of place in a Coen brothers comedy, nor would the appearance of a staunch Republican neighbour just seconds before: “Do I look like a Barack Hussein Obama supporter?”
I watched Boyhood at home on Blu-ray. After the credits finished rolling, the disc reverted back to its main menu where the option to view a special feature was supplemented by a montage of Mason growing up, Family of the Year’s song “Hero” playing in tandem. It was like watching the film all over again, tear-jerking and life-affirming. Boyhood is bigger than any perceived gimmick. It’s a film for all the family about all the family. It’s proper cinema.
Images copyright (©): ICF Films