Writer-director Richard Linklater has built his film career on ambitious, semi-experimental cinema. He wrote and directed the critically-acclaimed Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight series, turning a chance meeting on a train in Europe into a lifelong conversation between two star-crossed lovers. He brought us the ultimate freewheeling movie, Dazed and Confused, bringing free-ranging conversations and a large ensemble to create a film all about mood and feeling. He tamed Jack Black to play a substitute school teacher in School of Rock and a lovable mortician in Bernie. All the while, Boyhood, his most epic film has been brewing in the background.
Boyhood is the growing pains story of young Mason, an American kid, from age 5 to 18. To get the most authentic journey, Linklater, decided to make the film over 12 years... allowing the actors to grow with their characters. It was a risky move, if you consider the impact of one of the stars being unable to finish the shoot. However, in typical Linklater fashion... he not only manages to capture a marked consistency across the board with a first-of-its-kind "gimmick", but also delivers a moving and soulful fictional biography.
It's the sort of film you leave, thinking you know these people, a testament to Linklater's craft, the spontaneity of the script and the calibre of the performances. We're mesmerised by the ebb-and-flow of a life made all the more extraordinary by its authenticity. We're not working towards any singular major life-changing moment, but enjoying Mason's life as a series of life-changing moments.
Linklater's script feels so off-the-cuff that you're taken aback by the writing, when the characters unleash a nugget of kitchen sink wisdom. The in-the-moment feeling generated by the actors and film-maker is enhanced by the film's patience, the environment's almost untainted feeling, making it seem like the next best thing to adapting a lifetime of home videos.
Ellar Coltrane is the star and backbone of the film, turning in a restrained performance that holds such weight and slow-burning dignity that it will probably be difficult for him to divorce himself from the role. The character's 12-year journey could probably be likened to the feeling some long-running TV show actors must feel when it all comes to an end. Nevertheless, we feel a strangely intimate connection... having journeyed with him so long.
Coltrane is supported by name stars Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Arquette's gradual transition is just as compelling as Mason's struggling mother, who delivers a sincere, heartfelt and honest performance. We feel the angst of her nomadic, single parent dilemna and the compassion she feels as a mom who just wants what's best for her kids.
Hawke is just as curious as Mason's father, a charming fly-by-night character, who tries his best to be a good role model. His intermittent appearances help shape Boyhood's sense of humour as he tries to impart trial-and-error wisdom as a part-time parent. Hawke is a regular Linklater collaborator, and the two seem to have a good understanding, creating some of their best work together.
Lorelei Linklater also deserves a special mention for her role as Mason's sister, Samantha. While Boyhood is mostly about Mason, Samantha's childhood is also observed by association. Linklater's daughter does an excellent job, creating some believable brother-sister chemistry and also injecting much heart and humour in the process.
At almost three hours, Boyhood is a monumental drama. The filmmakers could have gone to much darker places with Mason's character, but turn this film into something heartwarming and inspiring... opting to celebrate rather than berate this thing we call life. As a fly-on-the-wall drama, it's fascinating to see a slice of Texan suburban life and the daily struggles of an ordinary middle class family. So fascinating that we're completely absorbed and entertained by the characters, through all their highs and lows.
Boyhood deserves full credit for its ambitious feat, taking a small budget and creating something truly inspiring and memorable. It's a wonderful showcase for Ellar Coltrane, it cements Linklater as an auteur and brings audiences a fresh, genuine, honest, insightful and beautifully executed drama and time capsule for the ages.
The bottom line: Monumental