Richard Linklater may not be among the most famous American directors, but he certainly is one of the best and most innovative ones. He began his career in 1985 and gained wider recognition in 1990 with his independent debut film Slacker. He later continued to make cult films such as Dazed and Confused and Before Sunrise (a film that is – together with it’s two sequels – considered as one of the best trilogies of all time) and it was with that trilogy that we first encountered Linklater’s interest in the development of human relationships, emotions and mentality over the years. With Boyhood, his 16th feature film, he managed to capture the process of growing up as realistically as it is possible, for he followed a seven year old boy from his first grade to college, filming his childhood, adolescence and first steps into adulthood over the remarkable period of 12 years (from 2002 to 2013).
The crew met every year for a few days, with Linklater writing a screenplay each year as it came – sometimes only a night before they started filming. This is the reason why Boyhood brilliantly reflects all the most significant and defining political events (a war in Iraq, Obama’s 2008 campaign), pop-cultural references, technological advancements and the emergence of social networks, such as Facebook and how all of those things affected American people at the time.
The central character of Boyhood is extraordinary Ellar Coltrane as Mason Jr. who, portraying the character between the age of 7 and 19, grows up right before our eyes during film’s remarkable 165 minutes. The years of Mason’s childhood and adolescence pass by us in brisk and irregular chronological intervals (all thanks to Sandra Adair’s amazing editing skills), all while we’re watching the core family members during their ordinary daily tasks – eating lunch, doing the dishes, sorting the bills and driving to the school. Different haircuts and clothing styles are usually the only indicators that time has passed and that this particular segment of the film was shot a year later than a shot that appeared on screen just a few seconds. With the exception of a few alcohol-related family dramas, this film is mainly about the micro-details of everyday life and it’s unbelievably refreshing to see a film that doesn’t spend any time leading us to the big, clichéd »turning point« events (like the first kiss and awkward virginity loss) that are usually the main focus of the coming of age films; not only that, such events are even entirely skipped over . According to Linklater “it’s the subtle accrual details that defines a life, not the big moments” – and it is exactly those details that may seem minimal and unimportant at the time, but that turn out to be much more significant than some big, “life-defining” events when we look back at our life that prevail in his latest film – details like your mother tucking you in, reading you a Harry Potter book before you go to sleep or a cruelly enforced haircut from your alcoholic stepfather and a camping trip with your estranged father that ends with him giving you your first dating advice.
But even though the film is primarily about Mason Jr., we never get a feeling that any of the other (supporting) characters are less important (as it is so often the case with coming of age films). Patricia Arquette gives her best performance to date as a single mother Olivia that desperately tries to rebuild a nuclear family that fell apart all too soon to give her children a »normal« childhood (because that’s what society expects from single mothers), although it never quite works out. It is painful to see her two marriages fall apart; but it is also comforting to see her grow from a woman that was financially dependable from all these different men in her life, to a woman that goes to a night school, does her Master’s degree, gets a respectable job and becomes completely self sufficient and independent. Then there is always brilliant Ethan Hawke as a cool but distant Dad who slowly grows into a more responsible person and becomes increasingly involved in the lives of his children. His once-a-year visits, where he simply tries to buy his children’s love with gifts and fun afternoons, slowly turn into a more meaningful and more regular quality time that they spend together and just as we can see Mason Jr. slowly growing into a mature, artistic young man, we can also see the growth of Mason Sr. who eventually lands a reliable job, buys a car that is more suitable for children and eventually even thanks Olivia for raising his children all by herself. Mason’s older sister, played by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei Linklater, is the only one from the actors who seems to struggle a bit in some of the earliest scenes, but even she is very likeable as always-so-clever youngster who immensely likes to talk back to her mother.
This is probably the first film of this genre that gives as much importance to the parents as it does to the children. They all grow and affect one another with their presence and every character in the story is thus equally important (no matter how little screen time they get) because they are all important elements in Mason’s life, in him becoming who he is at the end of the film. This is therefore not so much a film about Mason’s boyhood as it is a study of family interactions, or rather of (family) life itself.
What I deem as another remarkable quality of this film is that even though Mason and Samantha’s childhood is far from idyllic (there is a lot of alpha-male alcoholic stepfathers and a lot of moving around the country) they both turn out to be smart and non-conforming young adults who able to think with their own head. Children from broken homes are too often shown as problematic and aggressive bullies with drinking and/or drug problems. But it is also possible for a child from such a family to escape from the hard reality into the world of art – like Mason does with his passion for photography. When a teacher tells him that he “views a world in a really unique way” it makes us wonder if he would still saw the world so very differently if he hadn’t had such a difficult childhood. Probably not.
You know, like, everyone’s saying ‘seize the moment’? I don’t know I’m kind of thinking it’s the other way around. You know, like, ‘the moment seizes us’.
Directed by: Richard Linklater
Written by: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
Running Time: 165 minutes