(Richard Linklater, 2014)
So much cinema is about so little. Filmmakers manufacture conflict, finesse character arcs and shape story lines, all to bow down to the great God of "story". That is obviously not a bad thing in every case. But when that story is about nothing, amounts to nothing, says nothing, provokes nothing; when real life and humanity and thought is more or less absent from a work of "art", it can be hard not to ask yourself what is the point of it.
Richard Linklater generally makes films about life. That sounds like a simple, small, obvious thing. But in modern American cinema it is precious and actually quite rare. And Boyhood may be his best conceived and most fully articulated work; a film about the magic of everyday life and how difficult that is to appreciate, a film about time and the way it slowly steals our lives from us, minute by minute, day by day.
The process is the aspect of this production most of the promotional material focuses upon; shot for a short period with the same cast annually for twelve years, we watch young Texan Mason (Ellar Coltrane) grow up as his life and circumstances change around him. His mother (Patricia Arquette) grows from a stressed young single Mom into a College Professor, mourning the loss of her life as her youngest child prepares to leave the nest, acquiring and shedding a couple of husbands along the way. His father (Ethan Hawke) goes from an irresponsible but fun free spirit to a "boring old fart" with a mini-van and a new young family, consistently giving Mason heartfelt advice based on his own mistakes and revelations.
His sister (Lorelai Linklater) and he move house several times, change schools and stepdads, by turns stoic and petulant. All of these characters are complicated and believable, their complexities and quirks revealed incrementally over the years. Mason himself is a quiet, watchful presence for most of the first half of the film; we hear other people's opinions of him more than we hear his own. And then puberty hits, shockingly, and he is suddenly a pretty, moody teen, and a conversation with his father on a camping trip is followed later by a long reveal of his sensitivity and distinctive view of the world in a romantic chat with his first love. Suddenly this young man comes into focus, a product of all the influences we have glimpsed, and more fascinating for that.
There is something so casually profound in this it is almost impossible to process on a first viewing. Like in life, scenes just pass by, people change, circumstances alter. This prosaic quality is a big part of what makes the film so profound. This could be any life, every life. Linklater refuses the easy dramatic option on so many occasions it cannot help but underline this universality. The one real passage of melodrama - his mother marries an alcoholic at one point, and his abusive, violent nature doesn't take too long to reveal itself - is shocking because it is so different from the rest of the film. It is also brilliantly written and acted, and, like everything else here, beautifully naturalistic. The cast are all excellent - so much falls upon Coltrane's shoulders and he carries that effortlessly, with a quiet, mysterious charisma that is intensely watchable. Arquette reveals her character's strength best in desperate times, and her final moment of emotion as her son leaves may be the most moving moment in the film, and Hawke has perhaps the showiest role and really, evidently enjoys that and the many speeches he gets to make about women and politics and the Beatles and the meaning of life.
While Boyhood is fundamentally a coming of age story, it is so many other things besides. It is a story of family, of how we need and rely on support networks, of how parenthood changes people. It subtly portrays the way technology has changed our lives over the last decade. It's soundtrack is perhaps a tad too on-the-nose at times in its use of so much indie to track Mason's movement through the Noughties.
It contains lovely little moments and juxtapositions like the one where we see him shyly walking and talking with a female schoolfriend who informs him her friend has a crush on him, then witness him and his friends acting experienced and knowing about females with the older brother of a friend.
It offers a telling, poetic portrayal of young love and its inevitable dissolution. And miraculously it ends on a lovely moment of promise, potential and excitement.
It runs for almost three hours; yet flies by, and I didn't want it to end. It is magnificent.