When we think about Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s new film, it is interesting to note the maverick auteur Werner Herzog’s idea about the ‘ecstatic truth’: the suggestion that film makers will never be able to truly capture life in all its authenticity, that fabrication and imagination is the key to unlocking life’s gilded mysteries. Linklater has proven to be keenly entranced by the idea of authenticity and documenting the passing of time over his career. Slacker, Dazed and Confused and the beloved Before Sunrise trilogy all took place over the space of 24 hours, polaroid pictures of scattered lives and fleeting moments. Boyhood is his most ambitious project yet, tracing one boys blossoming into adulthood over a 12 year period.
Everything that has been written and eulogised about the film essentially comes down to Ellar Coltrane, the young boy plucked as a 7 year old to star in an alternate vision of his own life. His ‘character’ Mason is a thoughtful child living with his precocious sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and single Mom (Patricia Arquette) in suburbia, Linklater’s usual playground. His early years are defined by endless bike rides with friends, delinquent graffiti vandalism and video games. Linklater uses musical cues by Coldplay and other pop punk hits to define the cultural landscape of the early 00’s. We are introduced to his vagrant Dad (Ethan Hawke), arriving back from Alaska to bribe his offspring with daytrips out and presents.
The film then becomes defined by Mom’s choices; a series of hopeful marriages turned sour by alcohol and new schools for the kids to acclimatise to. We begin to see how the adult world is just as messy and confused as the children’s lives, and how a child’s life can be transformed on the parent’s whim. Mason becomes more introverted, his cherubic glow giving way to a sullen teenager. He begins to make contact with girls and finds a passion for photography, all the while trying to come to terms with his mother’s nomadic lifestyle. Dad flits in and out of the film, much like a customer of separation would, and starts his own family. Boyhood is not a film of great invention and drama, but one trying to illuminate the smaller moments.
The ambition shown by Linklater is quite astonishing. There was a recent Michael Winterbottom drama that similarly tried to evoke a stretch of time like this, but other than that Boyhood is something of an anomaly. In interviews the director has stated that they tried to film for a few weeks every year, creating a short film annually. He admits that there was an element of uncertainty running through the production, and if we are being objective, it shows. Casting a couple of young children to play out characters and watch them evolve shows a remarkable degree of trust. Does it work? In my opinion, not quite. As Coltrane ages, the initial charm he has as a kid subsides; his introversion comes to the fore, and he doesn’t have the requisite acting chops to deliver the more dramatic scenes. Neither does Linklater’s daughter Lorelei for that matter.
Yet there is a strange beauty in this flaw, the unpredictability of these human beings and what life will throw at them down the years. Linklater has obviously had to adapt his story and his characters as the two actors develop. Where the film falls down, and in quite a big way, is the broad strokes that Linklater uses to convey the story. In dealing with such an epic timeline, he resorts to numerous cliches and cut out characters. Professor Bill, for example, Mom’s first husband, changes from charismatic saviour to monstrous pig with no warning. There is a lack of character development and nuance here. Elsewhere Linklater hams up his themes a little; the religious right and the war in Iraq are both dealt with in crude slabs.
While Boyhood is not a perfect film, there are moments of poignance running through the film. Particularly Mason’s relationship to his errant Dad, and his attempts to instil some fatherly advice on camping trips. Many viewers will delight in observing the changing cultural landscape, as we see the leaden, clunky iMacs fall to the wayside as iPads and Facetime take over. There is a particularly nostalgic moment for our generation as Mason attends the arrival of the newest Harry Potter books; it hits a personal chord because my sister also attended one of the midnight openings. That’s the thing about this film: for Western audiences there will be something that everybody can identify with at one point or another, whether it being a first shitty job or drinking your first can of beer.
An ambitious yet flawed film, it still feels like an event and for large parts, quite an achievement on Linklater’s part.