When talking about Boyhood, it's
unavoidable not to start with its ground-breaking central conceit: for director
Richard Linklater's seventeenth feature film, he revisited the same group of
actors every year for twelve years, in order to tell one family's story. The
end result is that the audience watches Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) grow from
six to eighteen years old before their eyes.
Mason's boyhood happens onscreen, in front of us, and we are with him - really
with him, it feels - as he and his family negotiate divorces, graduations,
alcoholism, relationships, and growing older.
The film tackles familiar subject matter: by
telling the story of Mason, his older sister Samantha (played by Linklater's
daughter Lorelai) and their divorced parents, we are given a standard American
coming-of-age tale, complete with children caught between warring parents,
fathers (both biological and surrogate) attempting to force their sons to act
more manly, frustrated teachers telling the central adolescent that he's
talented but a slacker, and so on.
But Linklater depicts these scenes so
sensitively and with such a deft touch, slipping easily between humour and high
tension, that these familiar situations are given a new lease of life.
Linklater's always been great at coaxing powerfully naturalistic performances from
his actors, and the cast of Boyhood are so skilled that it gives these
well-known cinematic situations new power. The film is so spot-on in
capturing the intricacies of inter-family relationships that at times it was
more like watching a home movie (an experience just as nostalgic and
occasionally painful as that suggests) than an epically envisioned feature
Boyhood isn't the first film to keep revisiting the
same group of characters over a long period of time. But in the past this has
always been done by a director returning to the same characters over a series
of movies: Linklater's own Before trilogy (which, like Boyhood,
stars Ethan Hawke), Cédric Klapisch's Spanish Apartment trilogy (we showed the
trilogy's final instalment, Chinese Puzzle, earlier this summer) and
even the mammoth Harry Potter series, which Boyhood sneaks a
reference to, all perform this trick.
But Boyhood is different. By telescoping
all of this onscreen growing down into the span of a single feature film, so
that we see, like one of those sped-up time-lapse videos in a David
Attenborough documentary, the characters changing right there before us (Mason
shoots up in height; his parents' bodies soften with age, their faces growing
lined) gives Boyhood an unprecedented emotional punch.
If you're familiar with some of Linklater's
signature films - Slacker, Dazed and Confused, the Before
trilogy - you'll know that he often favours plot-light, discursive movies that
preference atmosphere over narrative drive. Boyhood's style is similar
to this: its long running time affords it a novelistic scope, giving Linklater
time to set the tone and build up characterisation, with narrative detours
featuring bit characters that pop up once and never again. But the relentless
march of time (which is a key preoccupation for Mason's parents) gives Boyhood
a structure and pace these previous films lack.
We flick through snapshots of twelve years in
this family's life, and the characters that are created are realistic, fully
rounded and fully resistant to categorisation as particular "types".
Is Mason Snr. (Hawke) a good guy at heart who is trying to do the best he can,
or an irresponsible idiot? Is the teenaged Mason Jr. profound or pretentious?
Do you leave the film feeling sad or uplifted? Of course, being true-to-life,
the answer is that all these answers are right.
As working at the Showroom comes with the
incomparable perk of being able to see films for free, I've
been in a lot of different groups of staff members going to see a lot of
different films. Boyhood is one of the only films I've seen when everyone
who went to watch it came out of the cinema saying they loved the movie. I
guess you'll have to watch it yourself to see if you agree.
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