Richard Linklater’s intimate, epic 12 year odyssey of growing up.
Excitement abounded in many quarters (not the least mine) when Sundance announced a late addition to their 2014 programme: Richard Linklater’s mystery ‘12 years’ project Boyhood. With a goal of filming the development of a boy and his family over the entire length of his schooling, Linklater and co. kicked off production on the project mid-2002 and, filming a few weeks per year, finally wrapped in October of 2013. It may seem trite to speak of this unique production method, and challenges it posed, but the very scope of the production process is sewn into the fabric of the film, making it a truly epic viewing experience. The word epic generally brings to mind films of ambitious narrative and/or geographic scope such as Lawrence of Arabia or The Lord of the Rings trilogy rather than family dramas. Yet seeing the lives of this familial unit spool out in a kind of cinematic time-lapse creates a sense of awe that is difficult to describe. Like a Chuck Close painting the character portraits are intimate but no less grand for it.
Playing out in chronologically ordered segments, Boyhood starts off feeling like a series of discrete vignettes but it doesn’t take long for the film to find its flow—or perhaps it was me who found the film’s flow? As the segments cohere we are swept along on a veritable narrative river which by turns narrows into fast moving turbulence then broadens into something more languid yet satisfyingly deep. The central trio each give strong performances helping to create an incredibly lived in sense of family. It quickly becomes apparent that Linklater was lucky in his choice of Ellar Coltrane for the titular role of the boy, Mason (Jr.) The wheels could have fallen off this production in many salvageable ways, but if Ellar didn’t stick with the project and come up to scratch in terms of his acting it might’ve all been for nought. I have no doubt the director (as he mentioned in interviews about the project) worked hard to accommodate significant life changes in his young leads and removed barriers to keeping the project going, but it is still impressive how well the final edit has come together. Casting his own daughter (Lorelei Linklater) in the role of Mason’s (slightly) older sister Samantha was always going to be a smart move in terms of production logistics, but again the filmmaker finds himself with a creditably unforced performance. Both of these kids hold their own against the adults in the film, reliable character actors all, including Patricia Arquette as their mother Olivia and Ethan Hawke as their (initially) transient father Mason Sr.
The events in the film are of a reasonably standard nature as the film tracks the ins and outs of the ever changing relationship of parent to child, child to parent. Troubles and joys, the difficulties of moving schools/towns, marriage and divorce, families blended and blown apart, first kisses and first heartbreaks all feature at various points. Mason Sr. drifts in and out of the kids’ lives with increasing frequency as the film progresses; his presence, at first unsettling, slowly becomes a stabilising factor. (I must admit I’m trying to imagine any scenario that would realistically end in Ethan Hawke fostering the kind of facial hair Mason Sr. at one stage adopts and I’m coming up empty!)
Much as with the production of the Before trilogy, Linklater shared writing duties with the key cast making for very natural feeling interactions. I’m sure they utilised (in particular) the young actors’ actual life stages/situations to inform and flavour characterisation and context. The cast and crew have struck a resoundingly honest sense of family and what it means to grow up. Boyhood proves the ultimate coming of age drama full of warmth, passion, frustration, and heartbreak. The film is quite simply a breathtaking celebration of the fullness of life. Linklater collaborates with regular cinematographers Lee Daniel (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise/Sunset) and Shane F. Kelly (A Scanner Darkly) to catch a full range of footage: getting close (in class, sibling arguments in the car, intimate moments between friends and lovers) or going wide (camping at the lake, on the family farm, bike riding) as each situation dictates. Boyhood sings a dual melody which perfectly blends the intimate into the epic, the specific into the universal. A synergy of performance, production, and subject make this one of Linklater’s greatest achievements and one of the finest pieces of cinema I’ve ever experienced.