TL;DR: More like Lifehood, Linklater combines essences from previous works to present a Texas-based coming of age, time-lapse narrative that demonstrates how growing up is not just specific to children, boy does it work.
My expectations were high upon entering the splendid Phoenix Picturehouse in Oxford for their 14:30 showing of Boyhood, it being one of my most anticipated films of 2014 due to my love for the overwhelming majority of Linklater’s previous films. One thing I love is how Linklater, ever since Slacker, has demonstrated how strong his dialogue writing can be in many different contexts be it comically yet intimiately such as in Bernie, lovingly and explorative like in the Before films or existential and abstract as in Waking Life. Boyhood is no exception. What the film lacks in snappy plot twists it makes up for in relatable characters we can empathise with due to a timeline of impactful life events with visualized consequences.
The unique selling point of Boyhood, which must be mentioned, is that the film’s production span is over a decade (Because the 9 year separation between the Before films were not enough real time tomfoolery for Linklater). This means that character development here is as true as it could possibly be, we literally see Mason Jnr (Ellar Coltrane) grow from an infant to a college student in just shy of 3 hours. The soundtrack and nostalgia-inducing references to the different years are brilliant and help establish the year tenderly, Mason’s older, yet still young, sister singing “Oops I did it again” and the evolution of the mobile phones used are just a couple of examples.
The film’s storyline is linear and begins with a young Mason gazing at a blue sky as a young boy of about 6. Mason’s the kind of kid that’ll be happy playing with dirt and rocks in the garden for hours; that’s not to say he’s dumb though, he does his homework but he does forget to hand it in. We meet his family. His older sister Samantha, played by Lorelei Linklater, is giggly and can be stubborn like a lot of girls are at that time of their lives but eventually grows to be strong, independent and funny. His single mother, Liv (Patricia Arquette), is loving and amiable but the struggles of life and love are visibly beginning to take their toll. Most of the film is spent observing them deal with life just like we did or will do, be it as a child or a parent, whilst they grow as people and as a family unit. Our family almost relocated when I was younger like they did in Boyhood and that hit me hard. The life events slowly change from happening around yet affecting a young Mason (Mum’s damaging relationships) to happening to him and because of him like prom, graduating, bullying and developing interests as he grows older; this is a film seeped in reality, even if a lot of the conversation is probably too deep for how most kids talk these days.
Linklater regular, Ethan Hawke (apparently channelling his inner Sam Rockwell) plays the kids’ Dad with heaps of energy and depth but is undoubtedly outshined here by Arquette’s heart-making and breaking performance. She transforms herself several times throughout the film, seemingly losing/gaining weight for each relationship she engages in as well as unavoidable aging, for me, she really exposes how parents see their children, how much they love them and love being with them especially when it comes to letting your babies fly the nest.
The real star for me though is Ellar Coltrane as our leading boy/man who acts way beyond his years, in particular, in his early to late teen years. Looking at times like a young Ethan Hawke himself (his chilled voice and semi-open eyes could be seen as a little stoner like, though for me, he seems pensive), Coltrane portrays that time of life seen in so many other coming-of-age stories; you really want to follow your dream but aren’t particularly sure of what it is, you blindly fall in love and are heart-broken when it’s all torn down. These are areas Linklater’s writing excels in (see Dazed and Confused, I keep getting older and it stays just as good), and his direction style is apparent throughout such as in a Jesse and Celine-esque long take of Mason and a female friend chatting casually whilst walking along a street. Mason’s travels through his early years, into puberty and beyond and his interactions with those who love him and support him made me wonder what’s truly important in life… not many actors or films can do that so the whole cast deserve credit on such an evocative, ambitious project.
Boyhood is like taking a trip down the memory lane of the guy who lives down the next street. You were there at the same time but you never put on his shoes and stepped out of his front door and that’s what makes Boyhood interesting.