Boyhood is an entirely new genre of film. It is a different beast from normal biopics, which in light of director Richard Linklater’s latest are clearly constrained: by the quality of the star, the time the film is allowed to shoot, the authenticity of the script, and the importance of the individual story in wider context. All of these elements strive for an impression of permanence and longevity through cinematic tricks and emulations, but the combination of these factors is always a compromise for the real deal: a genuine portrait of an ordinary person dealing with universal issues. Boyhood succeeds where countless biopics have failed (indeed their failure was not even evident until this release). It captures the cumulative minutiae of childhood in a manner never before seen. For late members of Generation Y (born through 90s/early 00s), Boyhood is sure to uncannily reflect, at least in part, moments and emotions shared in our own childhood. It is a poignant and profound experience watching this film being approximately the age that Mason (Ellar Coltrane) ends up at the end – 18, embarking on a new life at University. Coltrane’s depiction fosters a particularly cinematic detachment, where the audience can assimilate his slightly aloof persona and observe the relationships that flourish around him.
But let’s backtrack. The concept for Boyhood is a simple one. It follows core members in a family (fictional, although as we will see there is a fine line) over the course of 12 years. Linklater’s primary focus is Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who is an ordinary child (eventually man) with a youth punctuated by dysfunctional stepfathers and snapshots of his biological parents’ broken marriage. Linklater’s camera also follows Mason’s sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, his own daughter), their mother (Patricia Arquette) and father (Ethan Hawke). Each of these four key actors excels throughout the film’s mammoth duration – both in production and nearly 3 hour running time – incredibly returning to roles each year with seamless professionalism. That the narrative runs so smoothly is an enduring achievement. These actors clearly care deeply about their roles, and as a result it’s impossible for the audience not to invest in their creations.
Over the course of 12 years, we see gradual transformations in both parents. Arquette’s role as mother is a tough one as she struggles to cope with alcoholism in two separate partners, while simultaneously training for a demanding teaching job she idolises. Hawke on the other hand chronicles his father-figures path from muscle car enthusiast to mini-van owner; mellowing gradually as he settles down to a different path, still centred around his children. These stories are not normally notable; there is no claim to fame or revelatory experience. It’s all gradual and organic. Life has a way of evolving by itself, changing subtly, undetected until suddenly everything is different. To capture this notion is essentially cinematic, and marks a landmark for the modern medium.
Music is ever-present throughout this mundane epic (in the unremarkable, earthly, sprawling sense), and its use is a reminder of how useful tracks are in providing milestones for our lives and memories. A certain melody can be entirely evocative of a specific time and place, a notion fully employed in Linklater’s soundtrack, which also helps place us in time in a film without explicit chronological grounding. The soundtrack will provide many uncanny alignments for people of Mason’s generation, myself included, the discovery of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, The Black Keys, Arcade Fire (whose album The Suburbs seems to compliment this film perfectly) and many others are made fresh and invigorating.
Boyhood is a new form of portrait; the image left to expose for 12 years, the colours growing richer, the details infinitesimally defined. The Italian Neo-realists strived for naturalistic depictions of real people in the 40s/50s, highlighting the importance of not letting directorial manipulation obscure the true nature of real characters. I can think of no other film where I was more invested in the characters as I was in Boyhood; where worrying for their safety was genuine, edge-of-your-seat attachment. For me, this attachment was not fully evident until the film finished, and my body felt physically released. Without being fully conscious of it, I was rooting for this family in the tension of my muscles, the sweatiness of my palms, and the unwavering engagement of my gaze. This is the type of film I will show my children, to evoke a sense of time and place, the showcasing of a universal mood, a bottled zeitgeist. Throughout all this, Boyhood’s uniquely fictional ensemble seems essentially real in a way few creations dream of.