Richard Linklater’s dedication to his art pays off remarkably with this sumptuous piece of film-making. Filmed in short bursts over the course of 12 years, Boyhood tells the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from the age of 6 to the start of college. It’s an unbelievably simple concept which must have required immense devotion from all involved and all that adoration is so apparent. It’s impossible to believe anything could possibly replace the Before trilogy as Linklater’s magnum opus but Boyhood may well equal its excellence. Just like how the Before films display a relationship in 9 year intervals, Linklater’s awareness of how to use the realistic passing of time to support his dramatic intentions is utilised expertly, with time providing the bedrock for his gorgeous naturalistic sensibilities.
Time is something a lot of directors struggle to convey, sometimes because of dodgy looking prosthetics, characters not looking the right age or actors just not having the experience or placed in the right stage in their life to make you feel how they age. None of this is a problem in Boyhood, of course. As time moves, Linklater’s genius lies in his avoidance of coming-of-age clichés. Boyhood is more like a collage than a scrapbook of Mason’s biggest moments. We go from watching Mason see his mum flirting with her professor to the next scene filmed about a year later with the pair returning from their honeymoon. We glimpse snapshots of Mason’s life as he copes with the different stages of growing up and his relationships with the authoritative figures drifting in and out of his difficult but not extraordinary childhood: a drunk stepfather, a weekend dad (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke) and a single mum (Patricia Arquette) doing her best. We don’t see many birthdays or proms or those typical growing-up milestones you expect but we can feel them through Mason’s physical changes and his changes as a person. Moments such as a midnight Harry Potter book launch, the sort of thing any self-respecting child of the 2000’s fondly remembers attending, just adds to the film’s poignancy. Time is seen passing through Mason’s hairstyles and pop culture references which feel subtle and genuine because they were all written and filmed when they were actually a thing, rather than wallowing in fake nostalgia for early Britney for the sake of it. Without wanting to spoil a great couple of lines, Linklater must have fist pumped when Disney took over Star Wars. It also has a great soundtrack, getting the tone right rather than ticking off hits of the decade.
It must have felt hugely daunting for Linklater when he cast a 6 year old in the hope he’d keep his spark for the next 12 years (incidentally he cast his own daughter as Mason’s sister, Samantha). While he’d already mapped out the outline for the story, he admits some parts of Ellar Coltrane’s personality inevitably merged into Mason. As Coltrane grows up, his characters takes on a more deadpan, punkier teenage indifference, indicative to Linklater’s expert ability to convey naturalistic impressions. You feel genuinely proud for Mason when he gets to the stage when he starts to express himself and explains how he feels about the world. The dramatic weight is readily apparent without ever hammering home how he’s changed from the little kid we first met.
It’s an astonishingly intimate film which almost impossibly manages to avoid sentimentality and just feels true to its characters. The dialogue is tinged with humour and a life affirming sadness. It feels heart wrenching saying goodbye to these characters, each one we’ve seen change over these 12 years. Those 12 years play out over almost three hours, flying by so swiftly, just as time usually seems to. This is probably the closest there has been to a definitive film of the 2000’s, as tastes change and characters grow up. It’s an astonishing, bold piece of work, dramatically unparalleled and beautifully effective.
Boyhood is out on 11th July in the UK. Running time 166 mins. Certificate 15 (UK).
Review by David Rank