12 years of shooting, watching every actor grow older and change along with the times and the styles. That’s how long it took for Richard Linklater to create a film about life (a boy’s life to be precise). Many films have of course been made about life — it’s a pretty big topic after all — but Boyhood has a leg up since Linklater had the incredible patience to allow his actors to grow up while making the film. It seems like a gimmick, but that gimmick is what makes Boyhood so incredibly special.
Of course filming your actors on sporadic days over the course of 12 years (39 days of shooting to be exact) is incredibly risky, especially if your movie doesn’t work. What an immense waste of time and who knows what could go wrong. Thankfully Boyhood is not a failure by an stretch of the imagination, but instead an endlessly interesting study on how the banalities of life are the most important moments.
[This review was originally posted as part of our coverage of the SXSW 2014. It is being reposted to coincide with the film’s theatrical release.]
Director: Richard Linklater
Release Date: July 11, 2014
At the surface Boyhood can often seem very mundane. The majority of scenes are little more than every day discussions as we watch the early life of Mason (Ellar Colltrane) unfold from childhood to college. The striking thing is that it isn’t really that interesting a life and is definitely not a unique story to film. Mason and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) are the result of a broken relationship between Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) and Olivia (Patricia Arquette). As they grow old the movie follows the fractured family through abusive step-fathers, reconnection with Mason Sr. and a slew of other moments that every coming of age movie features.
The plot hits all of the key dramatic notes, but much like life the film simply moves on from them, not exactly forgetting its past, but not putting the massive emphasis on it that a traditional narrative film would. What this coupled with the actual, natural aging of the actors accomplishes is a film that somehow constructs a life instead of simply presenting one. It’s also not always the scenes you expect to see. Yes, there’s big moments like Olivia escaping with Mason and Samantha from her second husband’s abuse, but most of the big events happen off screen, allowing the audience to fill in the blanks. Instead of seeing Mason’s first kiss we see him later making out in the back of a car. Instead of watching him get accepted to college we hear about it through a secondary discussion. Instead of a cliche high school graduation we get the family event after. By skipping the big things and focusing on the little Linklater makes his study on growing up actually feel like growing up. As Mason notes at the end of the film, in a classic college freshman statement, there’s no seizing of certain moments, everything just is a moment.
Linklater also keeps thing incredibly simple with a minimalist score and a straight forward shooting that never embellishes or diminishes anything. It’s even more interesting because this treatment can make some scenes completely boring, and yet as a whole they make the film entirely more captivating. Each little vignette of life building upon the next as we see not only Mason’s life unfold but that of those around him. It’s an incredibly well crafted life that might hit one too many growing up cliches here and there, but still feels real. In fact the only issue with the film’s plotting is that sometimes Mason and his family’s life feels forced into situations that need to be hit to fill some sort of childhood lifetime quota. A later character who has been on multiple tours of duty in Afghanistan and ends up becoming depressed and drunk especially feels like this.
Then again, part of what makes Boyhood work is that behind every scene are modern day events, styles and trends. It is incredible how well this film not only captures a family growing, but the world changing from 2002 to 2013. It isn’t just the big events like the economic downturn or war, but almost precognizant discussions on things like the Star Wars franchise and Facebook that were filmed and scripted years ago, but play out perfectly as if written yesterday. Mason as a character also seems to be child of his times no matter what year they’re filming in. Going from an adorable kid to an awkward teen to a punk rock, handsome young man all while embodying the trends of the time.
As far as performances go things can get a little sloppy, though Arquette and Hawke prove that they’ve always been fantastic actors (half the fun is watching them grow up on screen as well). Coltrane is clearly a child actor, and part of the wonder of the film is the ability to see him get better at it. As a young child things aren’t too demanding, but as he gets older they obviously become so and sometimes he’s not as ready for a scene acting wise as he should be. Further along, however, he blossoms into a clearly talented and ranged performer. His acting career so far has been only a few key parts, but it will be interesting to see where he goes from here now that he’s done shooting a film that will no doubt make him famous.
The question then becomes whether or not the film would have worked with a more traditional shooting schedule; one where three different actors played Mason and all the adults wore make up to look younger or older. It stands to reason that a simply shot film containing the same sort of straight forward approach would still work logically in that fashion. Logic has so little to do with life, though, and the unique shooting of this film only helps to express that. Watching Mason actually grow up on screen through all the random stages of his life is messy and endearing and touching in all the ways that watching someone actually grow up is, and it would be simply impossible to capture that any other way. Even when jumps in time are minute there’s a slight detail in someone or something that would never be captured without this style of filming, and those tiny details, much like the mundane scenes, are what make Boyhood special and different. They’re what make it a success.
Being a success is incredibly important too because while film may have many goals one of the most important is its ability to capture life. From the moment a train pulled into a station filmmakers have been trying to present life to us — to tell us its story — and Linklater may have now come the closest. While Boyhood may be a fictional film its that fiction that allows it to present growing up, family life and America on the screen, but its the reality of the growth on screen that makes this fiction into a truth.