Boyhood

September 6, 2014
Ellar Coltrane in 'Boyhood' (2014)
Ellar Coltrane in 'Boyhood' (2014)

Richard Linklater was originally known for making films that took place in a single day. This was the case with his first Indie hit, Slacker (1991), and the cult success, Dazed and Confused (1993). The idea is crucial to his popular romantic trilogy – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight – which charts three days in the life of a couple, spread out over nine year intervals.

With Boyhood Linklater has taken a contrary path: the movie took 12 years to make, with cast and crew ageing in real time. It is an experiment that unfolds with amazing naturalness, as one segment morphs seamlessly into the next. It is not like watching one of those Michael Apted documentaries which began with Seven Up! (1964). The characters in Boyhood are fictional and all the lines are scripted. If it feels convincingly realistic that is a tribute to the director and his actors.

It is one of Linklater’s trademarks that his best films have contained strong echoes of his own experiences growing up in Texas. In Bernie (2012) he retailed a true story in the form of a docu-drama. In Boyhood, he makes fiction into the mirror of reality. The project bears no resemblance to so-called reality TV, which is usually more false and calculated than any soap opera. In one of the personal touches, Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, plays Samantha, the sister of the lead character.

The star of the movie is Mason, whom we meet as a six-year old, and leave almost three hours later, when he enters college at the age of 18. Ellar Coltrane, who plays Mason, has said he doesn’t remember anything about his life before he began working on this film. Coltrane has literally grown up on screen, looking forward to the annual 3-4 day shoots that came to feel like a family reunion.

The character of Mason closely reflected aspects of Coltrane’s life, with Linklater making constant adjustments to the role to incorporate changes that had taken place in his lead actor. The line between reality and fiction grew so blurred Coltrane says there were times when he couldn’t remember whether he had experienced an event in actuality or on film.

The plot is as loose as life itself. When we meet Mason he is a precocious little boy who lives with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister, Samantha. His father, Mason senior (the ubiquitous Ethan Hawke), has just re-entered their lives after a sustained absence. Any hopes the older Mason held of patching it up with Olivia are soon dashed. For the rest of the story he will drift in and out of his kids’ lives as a sympathetic but slightly gormless presence.

It’s a touching performance by Hawke, who plays the kind of man who never really wanted to grow up. He lives opportunistically, taking on various jobs, while writing songs in his spare time. He loves his children but doesn’t seem to have the stamina for family life.

Patricia Arquette’s Olivia is just as complex: a single mother determined to forge a career for herself, who always makes the wrong relationship choices. When she moves the family from a small Texas town to Houston, she remarries, to a professor named Bill (Marco Perella) who already has two small children of his own. It’s not long, however, before Bill’s urbane persona slips away to reveal an aggressive drunk.

By the time Bill is out of the way, Mason is immersed in the hermetically sealed world of adolescence. We watch him discovering his own personality and interests. His hair is longer or shorter with each year. He becomes more centred, but also anxious for the future. It’s exactly the state of mind that every teenager experiences, but it may never before have been captured so accurately on film.

I can imagine some readers thinking: “So what? Shouldn’t a film take us to places that ordinary lives don’t go?” But it is precisely the ordinariness of Mason’s life that holds us fast. Every viewer will recognise flashes of their own histories, and identify with Mason as he undergoes the confusion and elation of the teenage years.

The beauty of Boyhood is that it stages the process of growing up as a kind of epic adventure embedded in the everyday. It’s not just the characters but the look of the movie that is so mesmeric. Linklater, along with cinematographers Lee Daniels and Shane Kelly, has created a vision of suburban life that seems transfused with colour and energy. It begins with the young Mason lying on the grass staring at the sky, and ends with another scene that suggests this being who has absorbed our attention for three hours, is only part of a vast cosmic tapestry.

One has to admire Linklater’s ability to find grandeur in the mundane. The celebrated Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky once claimed that his greatest cinematic influences were Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. On the strength of this film, Linklater could find his progenitor in Walt Whitman.

Boyhood
Written & directed by Richard Linklater
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater, Libby Villari, Marco Perella
USA, rated M, 165 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 6th September, 2014.