There is a scene in Paolo Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (2013) where journalist and central protagonist Jep Gambardella views a photographic exhibition whose author is the son of one of his friends. This exhibition is comprised of thousands of photographs of the son from a multitude of points in his life. By continuing his father’s traditions into middle age – the father took a photo of his son every day from birth to adolescence – the son is bestowed with a magnificent photographic mosaic rich with detail that not only functions as a great work of art but chronicles his growth, physical changes and the evolution of his fashion decisions. With Boyhood, Richard Linklater has produced a fiction film out of this idea.
Boyhood is a project that Linklater has returned to annually over a period of more than ten years, momentarily capturing a few scenes before waiting for time to pass until the next shoot. As he began principle photography in 2002 and concluded the shoot in 2013, one would assume that the film is designed to be an epic due to the extent of Linklater’s undertaking. While the film is an epic in the sense of its scope and interest in realism, it is fundamentally a subtle investigation into childhood, family life and growing up in the Western world in the early 2000s. By mostly avoiding moments of real dramatic significance, Linklater builds up a collage of minutiae, conversations, plot details which never venture into the territory of the teen movie where the loss of virginity and unification of male and female protagonists are all important.
It is common practice within Hollywood filmmaking, when making a film that stars children and covers a great expanse of time, to recruit numerous child stars to play the different stages of a character’s life. However, as Linklater would undoubtedly agree, this often results in a feeling of unease – unless of course the transition is near flawless in the case of those Hollywood films which are so rare – as the realistic façade shatters with the film revealing itself as a construction. As a man who values realism, as demonstrated within his eclectic back catalogue of works such as Slacker (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993) and the Before trilogy (1995-2013), perpetually changing the child actors and actresses and applying make up to the adults would not do. To do so would defeat both the point and the appeal of Boyhood. Other than the strength of its direction, writing and structure, elements which most ignore, the film is able to sell itself on its ability to legitimately show the ageing and growth of its characters – a feat which is fascinating to watch unfold.
If in School of Rock (2003) Linklater demonstrated his competence in directing children, with Boyhood this ability has arguably come to its acme as the performances of Ellar Coltrane, in the role of Mason Jr., and Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei as Mason’s older sister Samantha reveal. The film tracks the growth of Mason Jr. throughout his student life, opening with Mason in first grade and closing with the adult Mason taking a drug-fuelled trip to the desert with his new found University friends. For a large percentage of its running time, Boyhood could just as well be called ‘Girlhood’ through Linklater’s interest in the Samantha character, who offers her gregariousness and vitality as a counterpoint to Mason’s introversion and introspection. It is when Samantha grows up and leaves for college, that the film begins to focus all its energy on Mason, whose passion for photography and conspiracy is slowly coming to the forefront of the narrative. Like Celine and Jesse of the Before trilogy, whose predisposition for endless talk forms the basis of the three films, Mason soon reveals himself as the sort of garrulous character Linklater adores. He wants to reveal the problems the millennial generation face through their addiction to technology, social media and texting to anyone who will listen but unfortunately never receives the response he craves. It appears that most of the surrounding characters are content with their implication within technology and see nothing wrong with partially living in a virtual world. We can see that Linklater puts emphasis on Mason as intelligent, thoughtful and as a character who understands much that his contemporaries overlook. If this in conjunction with the fact that Mason views a life in art as more meaningful than one in any other field did not in some way reflect the behaviour and stance of adolescent and adult Linklater I would be surprised.
The film opens after the break up of Mason Jr. and Samantha’s parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, a key moment of dramatic intensity Linklater decides to abstain from. Instead, as noted earlier, he moves to construct the film from moments of smaller narrative significance, which one could view as memories remembered by adult Mason: moving house to Houston, his Dad’s visits, going to the bowling alley and baseball game, visiting relatives, first days at new schools, first meetings with the various drunkards his mother ends up dating and subsequently marrying, camping with his father, encountering bullies in the toilet, adolescent boasting of sexual conquests, going to parties, first beers, first girlfriends and graduating from high school. While we never know exactly when each scene is set – Linklater jumps vast periods of time with the only signifier of this being the cut – political events are referred to (Linklater remains very anti-Republican), televisions are tuned in to familiar scenes and the relative aging of the actors or their haircuts and facial hair changes allow us to work out the approximate date of each moment in the film. Additionally, pop music functions as an indicator of date: songs forgotten today but favoured at the time help the audience acquire its bearings when watching the film.
As the credits appeared on the screen, Boyhood left me with the rare sensation that I had just watched a masterpiece, a film which worked so well and was full of such tremendous scenes that it was hard not to leave stunned. The entire cast, especially Ellar Coltrane, Lorelei Linklater and Ethan Hawke (who is a joy to watch), delivered performances that were undoubtedly impressive yet subtle, always working in favour of the film’s realism. Richard Linklater has given us one of his best films yet, a chronicle of a boy’s life which explores themes that are in a sense universal, despite the narrative being so situated within the United States. After Boyhood, I do not think I will be able to believe films which unselfconsciously make use of multiple actors to play the same character ever again.