I’m not sure when exactly I first heard about Boyhood, or “The Twelve Year Project” as it was then referred to. I wan’t to say around 2005 maybe? Anyway, it was certainly at a time when I already considered Richard Linklater one of my favourite working directors. I’d basically forgotten about it until some point last year though when it finally came to light that the film was almost finished and would be premiering in 2014. Like with last year’s Before Midnight, Linklater had managed to surprise us with a complete new film, even though we should have been expecting it.
The Before series is a related project to Boyhood in that it represents Linklater’s first attempt at studying characters over a long period of time, in that case, one day every nine years, but it’s weird to realise now that when Boyhood started filming in 2002, Before Sunset, the second film in the series, hadn’t even been made, and indeed Linklater had yet to score his big commercial hit with School of Rock. A lot has happened since 2002, as a viewing of Boyhood will remind many of us.
Boyhood is already a landmark achievement in cinema. We’ve seen children grow up onscreen before, in long-running TV shows like The Sopranos or the Harry Potter films (which are actually referenced in Boyhood), but never before have characters aged in real life over the course of just one film. Linklater’s dedication saves him the need to cast multiple actors for different periods or apply piles of ageing make-up on allowing an authenticity that’s rarely seen on screen, but it also speaks volumes to the risk he took. A lot could have gone wrong with this film, some of his actors could have decided they no longer wanted to participate half-way through, not least his star. He could have failed to secure funding one year, or lost some of the footage. He’d also have had no way of knowing how the kid’s acting would turn out to be as a teen. It’s a minor miracle that Boyhood even exists in a coherent form at all.
I mustn’t just heap praise upon Boyhood for managing to get made, it needs to also be judged on its effectiveness as a piece of narrative cinema. The results of Linklater’s decision to film in real time far transcend the gimmick of just seeing the actors actually age though. Whenever any filmmaker sets out to produce a film taking place in the recent past, their choices for period details; references, music etc. are never going to be exactly the same as a film actually made in that period. It’s probably easiest to see if you compare any modern film set in the eighties to a film made then. As such, Boyhood never puts in sly little references with the benefit of hindsight, indeed there’s even a brief discussion of the future of the Star Wars movies that, at the time of filming they’d have had no idea would be coming to pass in 2014. Likewise the music cues are all unobtrusive, whether diegetic or not, it’s mixture of mainstream (Coldplay, Blink-182) and indie (Wilco, Family of the Year) music all just seem like songs that would be present in life at the time, and aren’t concerned with exactly matching up with the year’s portrayed.
This naturalistic, exposition-free approach extends to the Boyhood’s entire presentation. The film will cut between segments in the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) without warning, and never gives us title cards informing of the year or other obvious pointers like newsreel footage. In fact the easiest way to tell when the film has skipped forward is probably Mason’s ever-changing haircuts. This gives an added element of fun for the eagle eyed viewer, trying to place the time based on the few cultural references provided (there are only a few really blatant ones, like Obama’s first election campaign, but again they easily fit right into the story).
In tackling a project like this, it would have been simpler for Linklater to just chart all the major landmarks and firsts in Mason’s life, but he understands that truth and power can be found in the more everyday occurrences. There’s a real honesty to many of Boyhood’s growing up scenes, aided by the fact that, unlike the vast majority of American films, the teenagers are actually played by, and look like real teens. Also, the film has some troubling moments of discomfort along with some real laugh-out-loud moments. Linklater’s intention comes more to light as the film progresses, life isn’t just about the most noteworthy events, and often memories are made of the occurrences in-between.
As much as Boyhood is about, well, boyhood, it’s also about sisterhood and parenthood. Mason’s older sister Samantha (played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) is present in nearly all the key scenes in the first thirds of the film, and only ever feels a bit side-lined in Mason’s later teen years, as many siblings will actually drift apart at that time. In a prime example of how the film isn’t geared to just reflecting the ideal US childhood experience, Mason and Samantha are children of divorce. Originally dealt with in Linklater’s typically understated, subtle manner, the parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) are already separated when the film begins. The kids live with their mother and their father sees them every other weekend. The progress in his parents’ lives is also charted as reflected by Mason’s experiences. His mother struggles with her continued poor choices of partners while trying to further her education while his man-child father is forced to eventually mature. In many ways their journeys are every bit as compelling as Mason’s. Linklater isn’t afraid to utilise the film’s Texan backdrop too to add more unique details to the story, and he draws some of the film’s funniest moments from that.
Boyhood is a wonder of a film, one that without much in the way of a discernable plot manages to tell a story of growing up that feels both universal and individual. It’s not perfect; it occasionally meanders and there were a couple of times when I thought it was about to end and then introduced some new characters. But real life doesn’t all wrap-up neatly the way movies do, and real is exactly how Boyhood feels. It trusts its audience to be smart enough to follow it’s progression without needing to spell out every last detail, and gives us a coming-of-age story filled with moments of joy, sadness, wisdom, confusion, fear, humour and more. Linklater’s epic experiment has well and truly paid off, and given us one of the most remarkable movie experiences of recent years.