The Review: What were you doing 12 years ago? It’s easy to delude ourselves that adulthood is a static progression of work, pub, sleep, rinse and repeat until we’re ready to retire, older, greyer and not necessarily wiser. Twelve years ago I bought my first house and got my first mortgage, and since then have gotten married, become a cinema obsessive, a choral conductor, put on six stone, lost half, put it on again – twice, losing it again, and you get the idea. While I’m a completely different person now to the one I was then, there’s no doubt in my mind that the period of my life with the most change – and also the most formative of my formative years – was the 13 years and two terms I spent at school. Coming of age and teenage movies are two a penny, and there have been some great examples, even in the last couple of years (The Way, Way Back and The Kings Of Summer, for example). There’s also a few examples of characters or series documenting the passing of time; both Francois Truffaut and Michael Apted have done this in fiction and fact respectively over the course of half a lifetime, and even Linklater’s Before trilogy has taken snapshots of a relationship at decade long intervals. But Boyhood is the most deliberate attempt to compress the passing of time into a single narrative, squeezing a dozen years into a running time closer to three hours than two.
We first meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) without much pomp or fanfare on a typical school day, just doing what young boys do: from laying on the grass, dreaming to spray-painting a local underpass, little in his life is remarkable. His parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) are recently separated, and Mason and his sister Samanthan (Lorelei Linklater) find their first few years of school regularly disrupted as their mother’s family circumstances change and their father is often nowhere to be found. Over the course of the next twelve years, we see friends come and go, new figures appear in family life, and Ellar’s development from confused infant to disgruntled adolescent through to shy, undemanding teenager as his voice drops and his facial hair rapidly sprouts (and presumably his other hair; thankfully Linklater keeps some of the more generic facets of growing up tastefully out of sight).
It’s a tricky balance to strike: there are occasional flashes of danger, but nothing remotely approaching peril, and when there’s potentially enough story to cover a trilogy’s worth of three act structures and more. Either despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of drama Boyhood is a calm, almost pacifying watch. Richard Linklater has never been a proponent of excessive camera moves or technical chicanery, but even the long single takes of the Before films which allowed so much character development are largely dispensed with here in favour of shorter, almost truncated scenes. In one example, we see the first blossoming of a crush as Ellar is passed a note in class; rather than dwell on or explore the moment, it serves as a reaction to something else that’s happened and we skip on to the next small life event. Rarely does a single scene in isolation feel revelatory, but by the third hour the cumulative effect of the life experiences sees something remarkable take shape.
There’s probably a feeling that stunt work in action cinema is still more impressive if you know it’s been done for real, rather than added with CGI later. Boyhood is one giant stunt in terms of its dramatic concept, but it rises above that to become something else entirely. Individual scenes are rarely, if ever, grandstanding theatrics or visually operatic, but the long progression of cause and effect gradually amounts to something much greater than the sum of its simple parts. Watching the time lapse of both a childhood and the world around it is surprisingly gripping, and the decision to mark the passing of time with technology – a new games console or Face Time on an iPhone – and with not-so-subtle references to the political landscape of the time allows the story to flow more freely and to develop organically.
Linklater also allowed his narrative and his cast to develop organically, matching Mason’s childhood to Coltrane’s own interests over time. The casting is eerily perfect – the six year old Mason is very much his mother’s child, while his gradual evolution into a physical resemblance closer to his father is uncanny. He lingers in the background of many scenes, observing rather than reacting, but his performance evolves into something quietly touching over the years. Hawke continues to be a revelation twenty years in the making, another successful long term collaboration with Linklater after the Before films, and Arquette is also allowed to shade her character beautifully, both the parents showing at least as much change and development as their young charge. Boyhood is a quietly powerful, accomplished journey through school years and is more successful than Linklater might have dared hope twelve years ago; he and his cast have captured something unique, uplifting and life-affirming and with it Richard Linklater may just have confirmed his place as one of the great American storytellers of his generation.
Why see it at the cinema: In this case the most obvious benefit is the feeling of watching the characters evolve over time; broken into chunks if watched at home, it cannot help but be less effective than absorbing in one showing in the confines of a cinema.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language, sex references and drug use. That’s boyhood right there; maybe we didn’t need a three hour film after all? (Yes, yes we did.)
My cinema experience: Watched at the Abbeygate Cinema in Bury St. Edmunds, now a true independent again after the Competition Commission wrangling of the past year. Thankfully the new owner’s intentions are very much to keep the place in the style to which Bury residents are accustomed, so I was able to sit back for 164 minutes in my favourite cinema seat in the whole world and enjoy another Linklater masterpiece.