Since its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, film critics have been falling over themselves to lavish love upon Richard Linklater’s (almost) unanimously adored Boyhood. The film has an astonishing 99 per cent approval rating at reviews aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, and without further ado, allow me to add my own gushing praise to the chorus: Boyhood is a sublime meditation on childhood, parenting, and the passing of time. It’s a time-lapse experiment that succeeds brilliantly, creating an unforgettable and very special cinematic experience that’s sure to be included in my Top Ten films of this year.
The danger, of course, is that all this adulation sets expectations far too high. This runs the risk of spoiling viewers’ very personal discovery of an intimate and unassuming low budget film which is also ambitious and poetic.
Shot over twelve years in Linklater’s home state of Texas, with the same central cast reconvening for a few days each year, the film traces the growth of a clear-eyed, sensitive but fairly ordinary American boy, Mason (Ellar Colltrane). We first meet him as a dreamy, snub-nosed six-year-old and leave him, 165 transportive minutes later, as a gangly but self-aware eighteen-year-old, eating hash cookies and philosophising about ‘being in the moment’ on his first day at college.
Joining Mason on this journey through time are his older sister, played by Linklater’s own sparky daughter, Lorelei (who, it must be said, looks nothing like the family she’s supposed to be related to in this film – but I guess that happens in real life), and their divorced parents, played superbly by a low-gloss Patricia Arquette and an increasingly weary-looking Ethan Hawke. The adults’ own ageing and development, as they fumble and learn through difficult careers and failed marriages (Arquette’s character, in particular, attracts drunks and dogmatic dickheads like flypaper) is just as interesting as the boy’s.
Boyhood is shot in naturalistic style (on 35mm film rather than digitally) by frequent Linklater cinematographer Lee Daniel (together with Shane Kelly), and edited by Sandra Adair, who has cut his other major works (including Dazed and Confused, School of Rock and the Before Sunrise trilogy). It finds visual beauty not just in the natural wonders of the rock pools and mountain hikes on occasional display, but also in the everyday brick-and-tile bungalows of middle class suburbia, and the flat streets where Mason wheels around on his bicycle, and later, in his beat-up old car, getting drunk, kissing girls, and wondering at the hypocrisy of adults.
It’s all beautifully evocative of both time and place, but as Nathan Heller’s excellent New Yorker profile of the director observes, ‘Linklater’s notion of cinematic refinement has less to do with virtuosic camerawork than with creating a moment that’s worth capturing.’ This is revealed in the performances, which no doubt derive some of their conviction from the fact that the actors collaborated on the script, and also in the way small moments are allowed to play across faces. An accretion of minor details adds up to a life that passes, as lives do, so fleetingly. It is this depiction of the swift, inexorable passing of time that makes the film so tender and melancholic, without ever being in the slightest bit depressing.
Linklater told Variety that the film was ‘an ongoing collaboration. But the biggest collaborator here, looking back, was time.’ Time, and the changes it brings to our bodies, our souls and our relationships, are a central theme of Linklater’s masterpieces. Boyhood, yes, but also the delightful and wise relationship trilogy featuring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. Seek them out if you haven’t seen them already.
If there’s anything I learned from Boyhood, it’s how hollow and self-important an adult’s ‘advice’ sounds when it hits a youngster’s ear, especially if it’s delivered with a nagging tone. Mason tries to be patient with his parents when they spout endless admonishments. But it’s the way the adults embody their own choices and values that makes far more of an impression on the boy, and like all kids, he’s going to be his own person, regardless. We’re all first-timers at life, fumbling with the limits of our span on earth.
Boyhood is in national release from 4 September.