Twelve years ago, director Richard Linklater hired Ellar Coltrane, a six year old boy, to star in a film he would shoot every summer for the next twelve years. This film would chronicle the childhood of a boy, Mason (Coltrane), growing up in Texas with his struggling single parent mother (Patricia Arquette), his man-child father (Ethan Hawke) and his older sister Samatha (Lorelei Linklater – the director’s daughter).
On paper, the project looked like a bold experiment, though of course much could have gone wrong. Coltrane might have wanted to stop acting in it for one thing. Furthermore, if mistakes were made, it isn’t as if they could go back and reshoot. The very nature of the project prohibited such cheating. Yet in the end the gamble paid off. Boyhood isn’t merely an interesting cinematic experiment. It’s something of a masterpiece. Fans of Richard Linklater (particularly the Linklater of films like Dazed and Confused or the Before… trilogy, rather than the Linklater of School of Rock), are likely to declare this one of the greatest films of the decade.
Of course, this kind of thing isn’t without precedent in the documentary field, but what Linklater has attempted represents something of a fictional first – at least, for a fairly mainstream film that will almost certainly win wide acclaim and end up Oscar nominated (trust me, it will). The cast are all excellent. Coltrane in particular is a revelation, yet ironically considering the film’s title, this isn’t all about him. In fact, his largely unremarkable journey from boyhood to manhood is merely the hook on which hang some much bigger questions that don’t just explore boyhood but motherhood, fatherhood, sibling relationships and much more.
For example, over the course of the film, we come to understand the tumultuous relationship between his separated parents; how they had children by mistake (far too young), how the struggle to bring up two children alone drives his mother into a series of disastrous marriages to alcoholic husbands, and how Mason’s father gradually becomes the responsible parent his mother had wanted years earlier, but much too late.
That might make the film sound terribly depressing, but it isn’t. There is trauma and tragedy, yes, but not the kind you find in Greek theatre. Instead, Boyhood has the ebb and flow of real life, with difficult and occasionally dangerous domestic situations merely touched upon as a fact of life. There is no sense of judgement with any of the characters, all of whom are deeply flawed, and in their own way trying to make sense of life’s big questions.
Furthermore, there are plenty of laughs to be had – particularly with pop culture references that are revisited. For instance, the apparent end to the Star Wars trilogy is discussed during a father/son camping trip (which of course we know now will continue). On another occasion, Mason and his sister queue to buy a newly released Harry Potter book. Political issues are raised and commented upon – most obviously 9/11, the Iraq invasion, and Presidents Bush and Obama. Mason rants against superficiality of social media during the rise of Facebook. Then there is the soundtrack, which of course references pop music over the last twelve years (everything from Coldplay to Arcade Fire).
There is also a joy infusing much of the film, with growing up, new discovery and the magic and melancholy of childhood perfectly balanced. Simple scenes where Mason is out riding his bike, or swimming, or making awkward adolescent conversation with a girl, or even doing things we might disapprove of (such as drinking and smoking weed) all have the ring of truth to them. This is a modern childhood, warts and all. It is the kind of childhood that exists alongside broken, struggling parents or guardians trying to understand what they want from life, and why.
That the film does not provide any answers of any kind is arguably a strength. Yet it is also likely to frustrate some Christian audiences who perhaps would want the film to at least hint in the direction they would prefer (for the record, Christianity – albeit the American right wing fundamentalist manifestation of it – is largely dismissed out of hand). In addition, strong language and sexual references throughout are likely to rule this film out for some. However, I felt such material was important, as it kept the rough edges of real life present and correct.
In the end, I suspect some will dismiss Boyhood as much ado about nothing, and in a sense it is. But it will also strike a chord with many, especially in the way it’s near three-hour running time seamlessly depicts how quickly children grow, how fast time passes, and, more painfully, how difficult it is to find purpose and meaning in life.