Film Title: Boyhood
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater
Running Time: 165 min
On hearing about the latest film from Richard Linklater, the reasonable observer might cautiously summon up one of Samuel Johnson’s more caustic (and sexist) one-liners: “A woman’s preaching is like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.”
The great American film-maker – famous for the decade-vaulting trilogy that began with Before Sunrise – here pushes his temporal experiments to the logistic limits.
Twelve years ago, Linklater shot a few scenes featuring eight-year-old Ellar Coltrane, his own daughter Lorelei Linklater, the redoubtable Patricia Arquette, and Linklater regular Ethan Hawke. Coltrane plays a sensitive kid named Mason. Lorelei is his hilariously mouthy sister. Arquette (long suffering) and Hawke (mildly irresponsible) are Olivia and Mason Sr, the kids’ estranged parents.
Every year or so, Linklater brought the actors back together to film another incident in the ordinary – but still remarkable – life of this modern family. Olivia hooks up with unsuitable men. Dad drifts away, but makes a reasonable attempt to stay in touch. Mason Jr grows from pretty kid to awkward frog-voiced adolescent to fuzzy-cheeked student. Meanwhile, current affairs manifest themselves as recent history: the invasion of Iraq; the election of President Obama; other stuff that seems as if it happened last week.
It hardly needs to be said that Boyhood stands out for its oddness. One has to constantly remind oneself that the various cultural signifiers have not been selected for retrospectively earned resonance; they just happen to have been lying about the place at the time. If Linklater were trying to recreate 2002, he might have balked at the inclusion of a first-generation iMac as too poundingly obvious, but there it sits in a contemporaneous classroom. Evolving videogame technology now charts the years more effectively than the less dynamic world of popular music.
The kids age in fascinating ways – sometimes undergoing dramatic metamorphoses, sometimes just gaining a little height – while the infuriatingly chiselled Hawke continues to look much as he did 25 years ago in Dead Poets Society.
In short, Boyhood has at least the novelty value of Dr Johnson’s famous dog. Nobody has ever done anything quite like this before.
The better news is that, while juggling the logistics, Linklater has allowed an enormously engaging, deeply moving saga to weave its tendrils about the loose structure. The film is shot largely from young Mason’s perspective: the camera stays low at first then rises as the boy grows; overheard, sometimes misunderstood, conversations between adults forward the story.
Still, it could be argued that this is Olivia’s story. As kids so often are, Mason is buffeted by events, while his mom – occasionally making awful decisions – is required to bend the world to her family’s needs. It is testament to Linklater’s genius (not too strong a word, I think) that, when Olivia eventually accuses Mason of taking her for granted, much of the audience will feel that the accusation is also fairly levelled at them.
Meanwhile, Hawke creates a deeply flawed but largely likable hipster of Mason Sr. He’s the classic dislocated dad who, not required to deal with everyday squabbles or crises, can loaf in and make himself popular by distributing gifts and flouting household rules. To his credit, Mason comes to realise this fact. It is one of the film’s many sorrows that the man Olivia first rejects is the most agreeable she encounters on her journey.
For all that, Boyhood inevitably belongs to Ellar Coltrane. Linklater took a gamble in casting the eight-year-old, but he proves more than up to the responsibility. Given the nature of its construction, Boyhood inevitably becomes the actor’s story as well as the character’s. How will that nose turn out? Is the voice going to darken? Will he grow out of his awkwardness?
Then again, it is every kid’s story. That’s what happens when you blend the universal with the particular to such extraordinary effect. Forget Dr Johnson. It is done very well indeed.