Directed by: Richard Linklater Written by: Richard Linklater Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Filmed over a 12-year period, Boyhood follows the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up in his typically dysfunctional family. Surrounding Mason on the journey are his mother, Olivia, (Patricia Arquette), his sister Samantha (Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei) and his sometime estranged father, Mason Snr. (Ethan Hawke). We join the story as Mason is just 6 years old, playing in the dirt and being mercilessly taunted with Britney Spear’s tunes by his over-bearing and precocious sister, and follow him all the way to his first day at college. His mother Olivia begins the film dissatisfied with their life in the small Texan home she has worked hard to rent, and so moves them all to her mother’s home in Houston so she can embark on a night school psychology course. As she does so the children’s father reappears in their life after an 18-month absence, during which time he was allegedly working in Alaska (although the picture is painted not a great deal of working was done and that Alaska was more of an escape from his responsibilities). Skip forward a couple of years and Olivia finds herself romantically entangled with her college professor, and the pair get married, giving Mason and his sister a pair of ready-made siblings. Over the following two hours Linklater takes us on a journey through the trials and tribulations of Mason’s boyhood, giving an insight into the rollercoaster nature of all our lives.
To put together a project over such a long period of time was ambitious to say the least, but to have pulled it off so blissfully well is thoroughly audacious. Boyhood is not just a glimpse at Ellar Coltrane growing up on camera, but also works as a mini-timecapsule which will no doubt prove valuable to cultural theorists and anthropologists in years to come.
All the actors involved put in great performances, giving us the feeling we are really part of the family on the long journey of growing up. For Hawke and Arquette in particular to be able to pick up the characters over the 12 year time period must have been challenging, but both do so wonderfully, their characters growing with them over the years (indeed it is as much about Mason’s parents growing up as it is about him). The two child leads must have proved a gamble (although possibly less so with Linklater’s daughter), as the director couldn’t have known for sure that the cute pair at the start of the film would work out as young adult actors, but work out they did, and brilliantly. Indeed it is sometimes hard to remember the film isn’t a documentary, but a carefully crafted fiction, albeit one which emerged in a fairly organic way.
Aside from looking at the personal journey Mason makes over 12 years, Boyhood also looks at the changes to society in the same period of time. Technology moves on from the boys playing Halo on their Playstation at the start of the film, right up to our current obsession with smartphones and social media. Cultural phenomena such as Harry Potter and High School Musical get a nod along the way, as well as Mason Snr’s activism giving an eye on the changing political landscape. Linklater introduces the music of each year in subtle ways, meaning there is a cracking soundtrack too, moving from Coldplay’s “Yellow” through to Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky”. In that sense it can work as an exercise in nostalgia as well as a coming-of-age tale.
The real heart of the movie is the concentration on how nurture can overtake nature when it comes to growing up . It is no accident that Mason’s mother is studying psychology, and in one particular scene explains attachment theory to her class, as it is the different attachments throughout Mason’s life that are of interest to us, some fleeting but with a lasting impact. It is a universal story, that life often effects us in ways we weren’t expecting, and it is sometimes the smallest event that has the most resonance.
“Any dip shit can take pictures, but it’s hard to make art”- Mason’s photography teacher, Boyhood
Of course the film could also be viewed as a documentary about the evolution in Linklater’s own film-making, watching him move from the days of School of Rock through to Before Midnight, with his film-making maturing with the characters. Indeed the linear structure heightens this, and it is pleasing to see it kept as a tale of Mason growing up rather than a “how did Mason become the way he is”. Linklater won the Best Director prize at the 2014 Berlinale for this film, and rightly so. It is both a labour of love and a beautiful gem of a film.
It is a long film however, with a running time of 164 minutes, but it never feels dull or flabby, with every element essential to the touching tale. There are plenty of laughs along the way, from Mason and his friend thumbing through the lingerie section in his mum’s catalogue (yes, the heady days before the proliferation of internet porn) to his sometimes strained relationship with his older sister, but there are some touching and shocking moments too. I really didn’t want it to end. The word “masterpiece” is often thrown around with ease, but Boyhood is one film that really deserves the moniker.
Boyhood is beautiful, moving, lovely and will stay with you for a very long time after you leave the cinema.