This review is also up at Channel 24 - with one or two more typos.
What it's about
Twelve years in the life of an extraordinarily ordinary young man, Mason, from childhood to young adulthood.
What we thought
Shot over a few days each year for twelve years, it would be all too easy to write off Boyhood as little more than an admittedly very impressive gimmick, but the truly wondrous thing about Richard Linklater's latest and perhaps greatest film is the way he uses this “gimmick” to tell a story that perfectly and accurately captures the process of growing up. More than just a twelve-year process, however, Boyhood is pretty much the film that Linklater has spent his entire career working towards.
The actual plot, as you may have noticed, is beyond threadbare and, though it may technically be classified as a “drama”, there's actually very little about the film that is particularly dramatic. Rather, Linklater paints a compellingly authentic view of growing up, of adolescence and of a slowly evolving family system, by focusing primarily on those incidental, seemingly unimportant moments that truly make up a life. There are abusive step-fathers here and high school graduations there, but they're given no extra import over passing conversations with girls or uneventful family holidays.
This is, in a certain sense, “The Before Trilogy” writ large but, rather than simply repeating himself, Linklater occasionally bring his experience on more “eventful” fare like School of Rock or Dazed and Confused to bear on this otherwise very naturalistic story, as these seemingly random scenes are woven together into a coherent and compelling narrative. Also, perhaps by the very nature of the film's “gimmick”, there is significantly more character progression here than in the thirty-odd years covered between Before Sunrise and Before Midnight.
Still, though it distinguishes itself from its predecessors on a number of levels, this is a Richard Linklater movie through and through. All the trademarks are there: the naturalistic yet incredibly smart dialogue; the long tracking-shots and, of course, Ethan Hawke – all filtered, however, through the eyes of a protagonist that literally grows up before our eyes.
Eller Coltrane is simply excellent throughout the film, which is frankly rather astonishing when you consider that he was six years old when he was cast and it's hardly unheard of for promising child actors to turn into terrible adult actors – and that's not even taking into account his commitment to so erratic and so long-reaching a filming schedule.
What's interesting though is that despite Coltrane and his character being at the centre of the film, Boyhood is actually something of a misleading title. Linklater's scope starts with Coltrane but extends to his surroundings and to the members of his family that are a constant throughout these twelve years. This is the story of a boy growing up, sure, but it's also the story of his parents (Hawke and Patricia Arquette) and his sister (Linklater's own daughter, Lorelei, who is every bit as impressive as Coltrane himself), while also being about his country and its ever-changing cultural and political landscape.
The passing of time is marked not only by the actors ageing before our very eyes but by Linklater's brilliant use of cultural landmarks as well. Obama, the Star Wars sequels and a playlist of year-defining pop songs let us know exactly where and when we are, while incidental conversations about sex, love and the Beatles let us know exactly where and when the characters are.
If there is a flaw with the film – or, at the very least, a problem that I personally had with it – it's that these characters may be real, but they're often quite dislikeable. Mason himself gets more and more insufferable as the film goes on but, to the film's great credit, his more obnoxious traits feel like realistic offshoots of adolescence and a messy family life, rather than bad characterization . Just as importantly, while I may lose patience with them on a number of occasions, Linklater's clear affection for these characters carries them – and me – though.
It also has to be said, with its uneventful plot, slow pace and extra-long running time, it's probably not for everyone, but if these things don't put you off, you're all but guaranteed to have one of the most enriching and engrossing cinema-going experiences of the year.