Since the onset of soft filters, much of Hollywood has been trying to pretend time doesn’t exist. Whether it’s through make up, recasting or good old plastic surgery, you either stay young on the Sunset Strip, or you die trying. The bright and youthful must remain bright and youthful; the audience must never be broken from its idealized, Photoshopped reverie. The linear passage of time has irked many a Hollywood director, but Richard Linklater isn’t a Hollywood director, he just wants to make movies.
There is no sweeping Father Time under the rug when Linklater’s around. Most notably, his Before Trilogy chronicled the ups and downs of a couple across a span of three decades – wrinkles, warts and all. But where our time with Jesse and Celine was but small insights into the story of two people growing slowly old together, Boyhood is more of an over expansive smorgasbord – replacing Linklater’s two culture-crossed lovers with the sweeping tale of one child’s gradual, uncertain steps towards manhood. It may be messy, overlong and occasionally trying, but the performances are universally phenomenal and – to be frank – there’s nothing else quite like it.
The boy in question is Mason (Ellar Coltrane), with the film chronicling his pre-pubescence all the way to the cusp of manhood. Brought up in the suburban south with a precocious sister (Lorelei Linklater) and a mother juggling jobs, child-rearing and college (Patricia Arquette), we’re treated to a full 12 years with Mason over the course of just under three hours, amalgamating numerous scraps and fragments into an epic portrait of a young man who grew up watching Dragon Ball Z and likes Paul McCartney.
It sounds ambitious – and it most certainly is. Rather than cast multiple actors in the role of Mason, Linklater stuck with Coltrane for the entire production, meaning Boyhood took well over a decade to film. It’s a breath of fresh air to see a director so outrightly refuse any sort of compromise, to throw off the shackles of artificiality and create something so completely true and without pretension. Linklater has spoken of the dismay met by producers when he pitched the film – informing them they would have to wait a decade to get a return on their investment – yet he still managed to pool the funding for the production. Even if the film were rubbish – which it most certainly isn’t – it should be admired for what it stands for: A rally call for filmmakers to think outside the box; to prioritize patience over compromise, soul over cash.
It’s oddly thrilling to see a set of characters visibly age before your eyes, and the world passes by with them. Mason and I share a birth year, and I found myself affectionately nodding at the little, period sensitive details that punctuated my own childhood and make Boyhood feel like a thoroughly real world take on a modern day upbringing. This isn’t a set or a sound stage, these aren’t actors, this is a real world where people grow old and fall to pieces, and where the houses look lived in and the cars are flecked with rust.
Linklater is renowned for his attention to the minute nuances of character, and even by his standards Boyhood is a human examination of the highest order. It’s fascinating to see the way the characters develop, as this is a film packed with non-definitive arcs. While Mason’s sister – even as an 8 year old – is initially a precocious wit, by the time she’s gone to college she’s pretty much an every-girl. This is a film where people can – and often do – change in thoroughly unexpected ways. But it all feels genuine, with the film’s sweeping scale granting it the time to make its characters’ transitions thoroughly believable. A lot can happen over the course of a decade, and it will more than likely spit out a different person from the one who came in. Characters phase in and out of Mason’s life as they would in the real world – no-one is ever-present, people move away, people get left behind.
As impressive and brilliant as it all is, it doesn’t half drag on. The childlike snippets of Mason’s occasionally wonderful, occasionally tragic upbringing develop into the inevitable moody teenager phase, at which point the film bogs itself down, forcing the audience to settle in for a long and occasionally excruciating final third. This isn’t the result of incompetence, in fact it’s Boyhood‘s earnest dedication to honesty that is its primary pitfall. Post-pubescence Mason spouts the exact kind of bullshit so many of us mouthed off about as grumpy teenagers in ripped jeans and band t-shirts – even if it is cringe-worthily intolerable to look back on.
I make a point of taking notes whenever I see a movie I intend to review. My memory is pretty rubbish and my barely legible, dark-hindered scribblings are a comforting fall back when I’m left flailing for an argument or an opinion. Yet, for much of Boyhood I sat with pen limp in hand. I even recall dropping it a couple of times. When it whisks you away, boy does it whisk you. At its best, it creates some of the most natural drama to grace a cinema screen – even if it does all end in cringe-y tedium. It’s so honest, so pure of heart and intention, that it’s all but impossible to feel ill towards it. Linklater has created a sweeping epic from dust, an odyssey of camping trips and bowling alleys where the people get older and the world is a fragile, beautiful place. Boyhood is not a film that reaches for profundity, but rather one big, contented sigh at the messy, crazy sprawl of growing up. The highs are thrown in with the lows, mingling humor and pathos with effortless grace. It is neither a happy story, nor a sad one, it just is.
Boyhood is an oversized and sprawling smorgasbord of a movie, blending the beautiful with the irritating in a rich and messy tapestry of growing pains and pubescent grumbling.