Boyhood is a film written and directed by Richard Linklater and released in 2014, after having been filmed over a few days a year for twelve years, following the arc of a boy growing up from his first day at first grade to his first day at college. Although it's a fictional film with well-known actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette playing the divorced parents, it borrows elements of the boy's own life as well as the director's, noted especially with Linklater's own daughter playing the boy's elder sister.
Normally in a review I would give a disclaimer here about spoilers and yes, I will be discussing vague plot points and specific scenes, but I also suggest that if you are at all interested in the film to stop reading and return after seeing it, unspoiled by my own ruminations and blather.
Boyhood is a remarkable experiment in film storytelling that has fortunately succeeded despite all the obstacles that could have shelved it. Disaster could have struck any of the main players. The boy could have lost interest in the project, or become too uncomfortable in his skin to be filmed in the story. The financing for the film could have been withdrawn (This is the most precarious ingredient, given the number of independent films companies that have shuttered up in the last decade; instead IFC are still going strong, and devoted $200k a year to the film's production). Linklater could have lost his way in the story and pulled the footage together into a shmaltzy mess.
Instead, the film has been released fully formed into a story that stands apart from other types of cinema: not a documentary, although many of the scenes feel 'real'; not an episodic exercise of expressionism, although each year is given about equal time on screen, with moments that veer off unexpectedly or naturally; and not a dramatic dark exposé of modern children exposed to adult themes too early, although there are strong life-changing plot points. Boyhood presents a film about how we remember our lives, our growing up, our choices, our mistakes and personal growth, and most importantly about how difficult it is to stay true to your self and become your own individual.
The aspect of self-perception and how children remember things differently is referred to directly in the film early on. The boy wakens to hear his mother (Arquette) and her boyfriend arguing downstairs. He peeks down, overhearing their argument. The following year, his estranged father (Hawke) is spending a day with the boy and his sister, who mentions that while her dad is insisting they had had great memories of camping and singing together as a family, all she remembers is the fighting Mom and Dad had. You can see the building drive in the father from then on: to do whatever he can do to be a good father, even though his own hopes of hooking back up their mother will be quickly squashed.
There is a callback to this a few times, most emotionally for me near the end, when the father is toasting his son as his graduation party, stating almost as an aside that although it seemed his son had lost his way recently (following a romantic break-up), he was proud he was back on track (getting into college), completely forgetting how long he himself was able to take responsibility for his life. This reflected to a moment when I was just a few years older when my own father said something similar at his retirement, and, like the boy, I could only be polite and smile, although an adult present there later told me how angry he was about what my father referred to.
Boyhood has entry points for a wide range of people, although set in the recent past with events and music for a particular time. While seemingly being a coming-of-age film, it's about parenting as well, about nature versus nurture, about mentors and assholes, about privilege and gratitude, and about creative spirit and life's barriers to that.
The mother enters in the first scene almost as if from the side of a stage to the school lawn the boy has been daydreaming on. While obvious that she is trying to do the best for herself and her children, in the first act of the film --about equal to four years for all three-- her choices force upheaval, uprooting and formative emotional trauma to the children. There's a tease of a happy nuclear family, with a silly but resonating scene of four children dressed as Harry Potter characters --the boy as young Harry-- excitedly participating in a midnight queue to be among the first to get the latest book. These are the moments you remember as a child, however superficial: the queue for a summer blockbuster (there is irony in the coincidence that the latest Transformers film is almost exactly the same length in running time as Boyhood), a concert, a Major League ballgame. The frisson of this thrill sent goosebumps of recognition to me: queuing for a Star Wars film, a Disneyland ride, an Anaheim Angels game. The family is broken up, with deliberate reference to an early drive-away from a home-- the daughter's accusations, the look back on lost friends-- only now coloured with a recognition of the danger they've escaped from and the helplessness of not knowing what is next.
Boyhood is not perfect, it has flaws: it has the atypical stoner philosophing known to appear in several Linklater films, awkward acting, moments when the reference to time passing is forced in, and characters that disappear across the years. For me, they were all forgiveable, and mostly can be explained within its own way of breaking the artifice of film narrative. Of course children and young teenagers will be awkward, of course there will be attempts to express one's thoughts in a rambling way, and yes important people do just drop out of your life with both reason and none. The last act of the film and especially the last year feels long but structurally reflects one of the important themes in the film: the struggle for a parent to let go and recognise their life is now rushing closer to its end, and the great leap from life at home to life at college with all of the anticipation and worry that comes with it. So, incongruously, the film is both heartbreaking and optimistic. It leaves us with both emotional devastation and the joy of leaping into the unknown.
This is one of the most important and remarkable films ever made, not just due to the impossibility that the idea of it happened and then pulled together to happen, but also in the compelling story it tells, inviting you to follow the path this boy Mason and his family travel.
There's a lot more I'd like to say about this film, but I'll end this with the wish that dannye was still kicking around to review this film instead. I'm pretty sure he would have liked it, and retold a palimpsest of it a bit better than I have. I was reminded of him often, not least his story of seeing Vampire Weekend (whose song 'One (Blake’s Got A New Face)' is in the film) with his daughter.
written and directed by Richard Linklater
Mason played by Ellar Coltrane
Sam by Lorelei Linklater
Mason Sr by Ethan Hawke
Olivia by Patricia Arquette