Director Richard Linklater’s magnum opus that has been twelve years in the making, Boyhood (2014) tells the story of young Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from age five to age eighteen. Boyhood follows Mason as he grows up, notably using the same actor for the entire film; we literally watch him grow as the film progresses. Boyhood serves the purpose not only to tell this part of Mason’s life story, but to also reflect on the life span and the trials and tribulations of growing up as a young boy in today’s world.
As a giant fan of Linklater’s Before trilogy, I had really high hopes for this one. From the outset, this film promises a lot. The very fact that it took twelve years to film and finish up generally means that there must be something special to it. I am pleased to report that any hype I’d build up in my mind about this film was absolutely met. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard of or seen before. This film is a strange experience because it’s like watching someone else’s life flash before your very eyes – but in an authentic way, rather than a ‘filmic’ way.
Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, from age five to eighteen. You get the sense that Coltrane isn’t really an actor; he just personifies this character that develops over time. Mason develops more ‘character’ and personality quirks, as well as general views on life, as the film progresses, and these stack up to create the adult person that Mason becomes. The transition between ages as Mason grows up is subtly handled. You’d think that there would be dates or years to show the time as it passes, but this doesn’t happen, which I thought was really respectful of the audience’s intelligence. Sometimes the only way we can tell that time has passed is when Mason’s hair is longer, or by the fact that a house used to be on a single level and now has a second floor extension. When Mason grows up, it’s like a sudden shock where you can’t help but be like one of those annoying distant relatives who always used to say something like, “I remember you when you were this small!”. Suddenly he has a big emo fringe and is getting into edgy shit and reading Vonnegut, when he used to be a little kid riding around on a bike. How did this even happen? Mason turns into a sullen teen before our very eyes, and even though this is technically just the ageing process, Coltrane infuses as much individual character into Mason as he can to make sure Mason’s journey isn’t stereotypical.
Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play Mason’s parents, Olivia and Mason Sr., who have broken up quite a while ago. Olivia has raised the kids and takes care of them on a day to day basis, while dad Mason Sr. pops around occasionally and hypes up the kids with presents and fun activities, to cram in as much positive bonding as he can within a smaller space of time. When he’s around, Mason Jr. and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) vie for his attention and completely overwhelm him. Ethan Hawke is pretty great as this type of dad, with a subtle performance that reveals a lot of emotional substance. As mother Olivia, Patricia Arquette portrays a woman who has a lot on her plate and just wants to make things work. This is definitely the theme of her part of the story, as she meets other partners (or a “parade of drunken assholes” as Mason calls them) and attempts to make a safe and happy home for her kids, as well as balance tertiary study and a career. Even though we don’t see these two parents physically growing up before our eyes like Mason did, they do grow up in their own ways – they get different jobs, change their views on life, and develop different relationships with their children and each other. Their emotional journey is not over just because they’ve departed adolescence, as we see in one of the final, raw moments of the film. Mason’s physical development gets a lot of attention (and rightly so) in this film, but I also found the parental part of Boyhood just as interesting. After all, we do see Arquette and Hawke develop over twelve years as well.
In terms of the story development, there isn’t too much of a ‘story’ to develop. The tension develops naturally because of the experiences on screen. For example, our natural response is engaged when we witness a domestic violence event and the unpredictability of a mean and drunken stepdad. There are a lot of funny reflections on social and political events of the past twelve years, such as George W. Bush’s certifiable idiocy and Sarah Palin’s daughter getting knocked up around election time, as well as Facebook eventually taking over everyone’s social lives. But there are also sober reflections on significant events such as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and how these have had a significant impact on a generation of men.
The use of music is also so perfect for nostalgia – at the very beginning, Samantha dances precociously to ‘Oops I Did It Again’ by Britney Spears, and then we hear the memorable pop punk of Blink-182, which evokes a whole adolescence for me personally. Then we get into the Soulja Boy and High School Musical era where pop music took a turn for the worse. By the end of the film, more modern indie pop such as Vampire Weekend, Phoenix and Arcade Fire takes over, plus a healthy serve of Lady Gaga for good measure. Other nostalgic elements include the early 2000s fashion, Mason watching Dragon Ball Z, the family reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets together, as well as the kids lining up to get one of the first copies of Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.
It’s so funny when reflecting on this film because when you think about the story, it comes to you in terms of moments: that time Mason tried to put a rock in a pencil sharpener, that time he was so embarrassed about a bad haircut that he tried to avoid school, that time his friend bookmarked internet porn on his computer, that time he got drunk and high and turned up at home while his mother was having a party. When you reflect on the film as a whole it doesn’t seem to have a concrete ‘story’ per se. Boyhood is like a constantly evolving and developing piece that consists of lots of little moments and memories that construct a coherent whole. And after all, isn’t that what life is about? Our lives generally don’t have a strict storyline and character motivations to stick to, to create an intentionally epic piece about what it means to grow up. It’s this effortlessness, and the willingness to just let things be, that is so admirable about Boyhood.
Some ruminations on the ending. (If you haven’t seen this film yet, please skip this paragraph.) When I saw this at the cinema, I overheard someone say, “Well, that wasn’t really an ending”, and I had a big think about that because technically they were correct. But after thinking about it for a while I came to the conclusion that it was the perfect ending for the film. Boyhood is about Mason’s life journey from age six to age eighteen. Given the way the film was travelling the whole time, there wasn’t any buildup to some big conclusion where everything comes together and all known issues are resolved and all the loose ends are tied up. But that makes sense, because Mason’s life is still continuing after the credits start rolling – he’s turned eighteen, life is moving onwards. There’s no ‘real ending’ because Mason’s story hasn’t ended, and hence, the way the film ended was actually perfect.
This film is long, though. If you’re not a fan of long films, you may find this cinema experience uncomfortable. I also have a couple of criticisms of the film – there’s some clumsy exposition here and there, some awkward lines of dialogue, and Lorelei Linklater’s performance is not exactly stellar. But these criticisms are small when viewed within the context of the film as a whole, which is a big emotional journey, not just for the characters but also for the viewer. I can forgive some awkward moments and sub-par acting if the rest of the film is supremely awesome and makes a strong statement – which, thankfully, is the case with Boyhood.
I just can’t get over the fact that Richard Linklater was able to pull this ambitious project off so successfully. He was able to get all of these actors, and children, to commit to this one film over twelve years. I haven’t even mentioned the directing in this review because it’s already too long, but the direction and cinematography was also fantastic. It was actually an emotional experience watching this at the cinema, and I’d highly recommend seeing it, because you definitely won’t have seen anything like this before. I’m getting Oscars feelings for this one. Boyhood is delightfully authentic and mindblowing for all the right seasons.
Is it worth paying for a ticket?: Yes!
Watch the trailer here.
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