I didn’t think a film like Boyhood could exist anymore. It is one of the most ambitious films ever made. And despite the conditions in which it was made – the film is basically a series of shorts strung together – the film is a seamless narrative that never threatens to collapse under its own weight.
I had heard rumblings of the film in passing. Richard Linklater (the director of Dazed and Confused, Waking Life, and more mainstream fare like School of Rock) began shooting in 2002. He would shoot with his cast every year for twelve days at a time. They would go off and reconvene. Linklater was writing the script as he was shooting and did not know where he would end up.
The film is the story of Mason’s (Ellar Coltraine) life. His sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) and him both live with his mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette). She is separated from their father (Ethan Hawke) and is trying to piece together her life. We see Mason grow up, become wiser, and end with his hopefully bright future.
It’s rather difficult to describe the plot. There are certain pieces that are important. Patricia, in one scene, marries a college professor who turns into a violent alcoholic that places the kids in danger. We later see that Mason’s father has remarried and has had a new baby with his wife. We do have scenes with Mason’s first girlfriend. But it is difficult to fit all the pieces together.
So yes, the narrative is clearly not planned out. There are characters (like the drunk stepfather) who disappear completely and are barely mentioned again. At times, it is difficult to figure out exactly what year the scene takes place in and how old Mason is. Usually, we can only tell when something is taking place based on a news report or when a pop song is being played. But for me, that made the film feel more like life. Can YOU recall exactly when certain events happened? Have people disappeared from your life? It is Linklater’s way of being honest about memory.
I’ve said that the best films are the ones that are true about the way people feel. Even when a film is exploring deeper philosophical questions, it must connect the audience with the characters who are asking these questions.
Boyhood is the best example of this connection in a very long time. For example, there’s a scene late in the film where Mason muses about how deleting his Facebook page would allow him to live again. This is poignant in its own way, but it follows many amazing scenes where Mason has had to find solace from his feelings on Youtube videos. Earlier in his life, he endlessly watches Will Ferrell’s comedy short The Landlord (remember that?) while dealing with his own exposure to the dangers of alcohol.
It’s a very skillful trick, one that people may not pick up on. But it’s also the key to understanding why Linklater did what he did. That’s how lives and minds are molded – by seemingly inconsequential moments that are only recalled years later. Those changes are very gradual. The Up series of documentaries technically did it first, but Linklater’s film shows the most realistic process of growing up.
What’s also incredible is how we see the talent of the child actors developing the longer they’re on camera. Arquette and Hawke are both well established, but the kids were unknowns. Linklater was a natural young actress (I laughed quite hard when she responded to one of her mother’s orders with “yes sir, mother sir!” and at her repeated insistence that the family would not move to Houston) but Coltrane goes from an introverted kid to a rather likeable young man. Never once does Coltrane’s performance waiver. It’s easy to understand why – he’s been playing this character for most of his life. Still, it feels like the sort of natural performance most method actors would kill for.
Most of the proceedings are relatively standard Linklater. He has a great ear for conversation and popular culture. But I don’t know if it’s ever worked as well as it does in Boyhood. For once, Linklater’s dialogue does feel like someone who is trying to come to terms with the world. Everything about the film works.
It has never been safe to make this sort of film. But right now, it is downright insane. Linklater’s skill extends beyond his patience producing the work. He has not lost his eye for youth culture and just how important those formative years are. This is a phenomenal work, one that really only does come once in a lifetime.