Film Reviews

Boyhood Richard Linklater

Rating - 8/10

Back in 2002, director Richard Linklater began shooting Ellar Coltrane, then a seven year old actor, in what would become his Boyhood project. Linklater would return to Coltrane, and the fictional world he gradually constructed around him, every year for the next twelve years. Before the film was complete, Linklater would establish himself as a master of long form storytelling with his two sequels to Before Sunrise – each of which were released nine years after the prior instalment. As interesting a trilogy as the Before... series is, such episodic gradual character development has been done in film before, most notably in Francois Truffaut's Antoine Doinel films and Michael Apted's Up documentaries. In attempting to show his characters steadily age over the course of twelve years in a single film though, Boyhood is an altogether more unusual project. Throughout the film, we subtly drop in and out of the character's lives, seeing their sacrifices and decisions either eventually pay off or add to their growing list of regrets. There's also something strangely poignant about seeing the actors of the film slowly age before your eyes, which gives an oddly wistful tone to even the film's more mundane scenes. To even attempt to shoot a film over the course of twelve years is a risky undertaking, and Boyhood is all the more impressive in that it not only pulls it off, but also manages to turn it into something tender and sophisticated.

The 'boyhood' of the film's title is that of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), a likeable kid growing up in post-9/11 Texas. As we see him subtly change from ages six to eighteen, we see the bright and inquisitive child of the start of the film develop slowly into something more awkward and unsteady, with increasing hints of the adult he's about to turn into. Along the way we see Mason come to terms with initially bewildering parts of the adult world, have his first relationships, get his first miserable McJob, and slowly develop the interests that will eventually take him away from his family home. All of this personal change is mirrored by the gradual shifts in Texas around him, with political events, music and even Harry Potter – which defined the childhood of so many of Mason's generation – used to show the passing of time. Given Ellar Coltrane's performance began when he was just seven years old, its remarkable how consistent his portrayal of Mason feels. Mason feels like a coherent human being, who we see take shape scene by scene. Mason is joined through most of the major events of his life by his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Samantha's bratty and funny performances dominate most the film's early scenes, so its a great shame then that we don't subsequently see Samantha develop into a more rounded character of her own. Yes, the film may be called Boyhood rather than Girlhood, but there are numerous scenes that would have benefited hugely from us experiencing more of Samantha's perspective.

Mason and Samantha are raised by their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a woman clearly struggling to juggle the demands of raising two kids as a single parent and finding some fulfilment of her own. Through sheer determination, Olivia manages to give herself the kind of career she wants, but the effort seems to leave her exhausted and little more fulfilled. An even greater drain on Olivia is her string of alcoholic boyfriends, whose presence casts a heavy shadow over portions of the film. Nothing has been easy for Olivia's character, and Patricia Arquette's performance believably carries and conveys this weight. A much more distant figure in Mason's life is his father, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), a weekend dad with a flashy car who shows an initial unwillingness to embrace everything being a parent requires. Mason's father is still something of a child himself, and his creeping acceptance of his fading youth results in one of the film's more believable characters.

Apart from the sudden shifts in the age of the child actors and the occasional new haircut, the passing of time in Boyhood is depicted with surprising subtlety. Yes, we're shown a series of moments that clearly represent some of the milestones of growing up, but the film always feels like a cohesive whole; a steadily unfolding story, rather than something fragmented or episodic. This is an extremely impressive achievement given Boyhood doesn't particularly have much of a story. There is no Hollywood three act structure here to tie everything together and no final climax – just the natural ebb and flow of a life playing out. The film doesn't allow life's more explosive moments to dominate, and where drama does occur, it always manages to feel like an organic part of Mason's life. This restraint is a great success, and one that remains consistently compelling despite the film's lengthy running time. Such a bold experiment in storytelling naturally isn't without its flaws. Boyhood often walks a fine line between warm-hearted and sickly sweet, and there are occasional moments, in particular one later scene with a restaurant waiter, that misstep slightly onto the wrong side of the line. With such a sprawling story to tell there are also naturally numerous characters and sub-plots that go undeveloped, which can feel unsatisfying in the case of some of the film's more interesting supporting characters. Issues such as this are a perhaps inevitable part of the experiment Linklater is attempting though, and ultimately its hard not to be impressed that Boyhood holds together as well as it does.

When a teenage Mason asks his dad for some wisdom to help make sense of the struggles everybody seems to be going through, all his father can offer him is the explanation that 'we're all just winging it'. It's just not the children in Boyhood who are 'winging it' through life and making the best of the situations that come their way – it's everybody. Everybody in the film is doing their best to carry their baggage and regrets through 'life' - that series of often quiet, rapidly evaporating moments that only fully reveal their significance in retrospect. The empathic and nonjudgemental manner in which Linklater presents his character's struggles through this stands out as one of the film's more admirable qualities. Boyhood isn't a perfect film, but as a narrative experiment and a compassionate, and most importantly honest, portrayal of life, it's a remarkable achievement.