Film Review | Boyhood

12 years in the making, Richard Linklater’s film can’t help but feel ‘real’. But that it remains charming despite its toweringly impressive artistic programme is what really makes it an unmissable experience. 

Growing pains: Ellar Coltrane, age six in Richard Linklater’s real-time coming-of-age story
Growing pains: Ellar Coltrane, age six in Richard Linklater’s real-time coming-of-age story

The Texan director Richard Linklater has long since transcended the ‘indie’ cinematic sub-culture which he’s often associated with, paving the way for a career that is both authentic and successful: a none-too-common blend in the contemporary film landscape.

One reason for this lies in the fact that in a lot of ways, Linklater isn’t just a proponent of American indie cinema – owing to landmark films from the 90s like Slacker and Dazed and Confused, he is American indie cinema: an oft-imitated auteur whose loose approach to narrative structure appears to channel both the French New Wave and the early films of Jim Jarmusch, but who lends a distinctive sensibility that has since been taken up by the likes of Kevin Smith, along with countless other – and inferior – imitators.

Linklater’s charming and disarmingly honest micro-tales of young people growing up in the American suburbs went down a treat during the Age of Grunge: cementing the disaffected ‘slacker’ as a key trope of modern American cinema and inspiring an entire generation of up-and-coming filmmakers with his DIY aesthetic.

But commitment is another – and equally inspiring – element of Linklater’s success. As he proved with the Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy-starring real-time-romance trilogy Before Sunset, Before Sunrise and Before Midnight, Linklater is willing to go the extra mile to keep it real.

Letting his characters age along with his actors, Linklater charted Hawke and Delpy’s fictional relationship over a number of years, presenting us what is arguably one of the most raw and realistic – while also unremittingly charming – depiction of a relationship over the years.

His sensational latest feature takes this commitment to longevity into maximum overdrive.

First commencing production in 2002, Boyhood has only just reach us not by dint of any production hurdles, but because Linklater deliberately wanted to show his protagonist, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up on screen: he is six-years-old when we first meet him in the film’s opening shot, and 18 by the time the film ends. But instead of swapping actors around as is traditional, Linklater opted to make Boyhood in little drops of few weeks each every year from 2002 to 2013: consistently using the same cast for more than a decade, with a special focus on Mason’s coming-of-age story.

What follows may not be the earth-shattering masterpiece that critics have crooned in unison about over the past month or so – Linklater’s films are somewhat ‘slack’ by definition and his refusal to impose a strict narrative structure may be charming to some but irritating to others, especially over a three-hour span.

But the film is an undeniable tour de force that is affecting and, as always for Linklater, sensitive to the intricacies of human relationships and the quiet battles we face on a day to day basis.

It’s also the story of a family, with Mason’s mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), his sister Samantha (Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei) also having a stake in the story, along with their shared-custody dad Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke).

Linklater’s best films care little for plot twists and gimmicks to rivet the viewer’s attention, and Boyhood is arguably his bravest gamble on that front.

To say that the story is wholly free of incident would not be entirely true. There are a couple of upsetting episodes that shape Mason’s childhood. But instead of being milked for melodrama or overwrought psychological exposition, they ultimately recede into the background as life simply goes on.

Linklater is brave because he embraces banality instead of trying to escape it. Though Teenage-Mason is the kind of bohemian outsider typical to a large chunk of Linklater’s oeuvre, overall he’s just normal enough to be relatable across the board.

There’s something to be said for the film’s title being borne out a tad too literally. Though Arquette gives a career best performance and imbues her put-upon single-mum character with nuance and pathos, Mason’s sister Samantha largely plays second fiddle to his quietly burning coming-of-age epic.

That the film would be intensely focused on Mason’s experience was made clear from the outset, of course, but perhaps we should ask ourselves whether we need yet another story of masculine growing pains, no matter how well crafted or committed to its premise it may be.

At the end of the day however, the film is above all the ultimate representation of Linklater’s artistic programme. Much like the ‘Before’ films, it is great in large part because it is willed into greatness: its writer-director knows his characters inside-out, since he’s put in the time to get to know them. And how.

This is why Linklater has remained, more than anything, a humbling presence in Hollywood.

In a time when social media and relentless consumption of serialised entertainment has fried out attention span, and in which films are meant to simply piggy-back on well-established franchises, Linklater’s long-form commitment to a single, simple idea is more than just an impressive oddity.

It comes close to being an act of collective cultural redemption.

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