Richard Linklater | 166 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 15 / R
Originally titled 12 Years, until 12 Years a Slave came along, that’s the thing Boyhood will always be most famous for: it was shot from 2002 to 2013, for a few days each year, with the same actors developing and ageing in real time, to tell a story of childhood like never before.
It’s focused on Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane), who lives with his mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) in Texas. Their dad, Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke), works in Alaska and turns up once in a blue moon. As the years roll on, we follow the family as Olivia gains and loses husbands, Mason Sr finally grows up and settles down, and the kids battle along in the wake of their parents’ lives. Of course, as they get older, they begin to face and have to deal with issues of their own.
It’s quite hard to give a plot description of Boyhood because, in many respects, it has no plot. I mean, how would you succinctly summarise the narrative of your entire school-age childhood? That’s the scope of the film’s canvas and, in tune with real life, various elements fade in and fade out over that time. The kind of childhood these kids have is not uneventful by any means, but nor is it especially dramatic. That said, your opinion on the latter will vary depending on the kind of upbringing you had.
Nonetheless, writer-director Richard Linklater strives to keep things almost unrelentingly normal. Okay, there are abusive relationships — things get a little extreme with her second husband — but even that doesn’t go as far as it could have. No one gets in a shocking accident or develops a fatal illness or dies suddenly; no one is seriously bullied or mugged; no one is arrested or imprisoned; no one is made homeless; no one gets pregnant… the list could go on. Every time you second guess that — every time you think, “oh now we’re going to have something big” — the film just rolls on with normality. Just like real life does, in fact.
Indeed, it’s so resolutely focused on the everyday that it even skips major-but-normal events in the characters’ lives. Neither of Olivia’s new marriages or divorces are shown on screen; for her third, we barely even see her fall for the guy, and we don’t see them separate. Mason Sr gets married and has a third kid entirely in gaps between scenes: we first meet them picking up Mason Jr and Samantha for the former’s 15th birthday, when they all clearly already know each other. Interestingly, most of the stuff we see that’s close to being definable as a “major” event occurs quite early on — in the early-middle of the 12 years’ filming, in fact. Did Linklater get drawn down a path of bulking up the drama, then decide to pull it back in? That sounds plausible. The stuff closest to being Big Drama is around what must’ve been the third/fourth/fifth year of filming (roughly speaking), and by the eighth/ninth/tenth we’re skipping over stuff and playing catch-up. At times it feels weird to just jump past events that are so important, but that seems to be what Linklater wants — a film focused on the literally everyday.
Even while Linklater aims for a kind of universality, this is not just about any childhood, but about childhood in the noughties — or as the Americans like to (uglily) call them, “the aughts”. Some have called it “a period film shot now” and there’s a definite truth to that. The noughties-ness isn’t made explicit, but it’s an ever-present factor. The passing of time and issues of the era are conveyed almost exclusively through background details: politics (the Iraq war, the Obama campaign), culture (Harry Potter surfaces multiple times, the best films of summer 2008 are listed), technology (GameBoys, Xboxes, Wiis; CRTs, flatscreens; the ever-evolving iMacs and iPhones), the fashion (haircuts and clothing, particularly when Mason goes all Alternative in his high school years), the music (though the vast majority of it seems pretty obscure, so good luck with finding a grounding through that). It’s those details that ground the film so much in the ’00s and early ’10s, as well as present-day societal factors, like the string of broken marriages, the lack of financial security, the good-natured suspicion and humour with which our sympathetic leads view the Bible-lovers that Mason Sr ends up married in to (can you imagine an American movie about good ol’ family values from a previous era having its leads all but declare themselves atheists?)
It conveys the passing of time with equal subtlety — sometimes it transitions to a new year so inconspicuously that you might not realise it’s changed for several minutes. This, I think, is part of the point: it’s one long story, not “now it is 2005, now it is 2006, now it is 2007…” For a film shot across a decade when the technical side of filmmaking changed so dramatically, it has a remarkably consistent look. That each sequence does blend seamlessly into the next is a minor miracle. If you watch out for it, or put images side-by-side (as in the trailer), you can see a change in look from the heavily-filmic early stuff to what I presumed was digital photography in later years, and even then changes as digital improves. However, it was reportedly shot entirely on 35mm, so something else must explain the changing picture quality. Perhaps that there were two cinematographers, presumably working at different times. However, as I say, during regular viewing the picture shifts are remarkably subtle, there to be spotted by cinephiles and PQ nitpickers, while going unnoticed by the general audience.
A greater feat of consistency comes from the cast. Experienced pros like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette unsurprisingly give excellent performances, though we surely must acknowledge that it’s a colossal achievement to stay in character when you’re only filming for a few days every year for so darn long. Their characters evolve, too, but in highly plausible ways. Arquette, in particular, starred in the TV show Medium during Boyhood’s production — that’s 130 hours of TV over six years, playing the same character all the time. That she also managed to track Olivia through that period may in part explain all the awards she’s been garnering. Personally I felt Hawke edged it in the performance stakes, but maybe that’s just because Mason Sr undergoes a more obvious change.
As for the kids… well, it depends how much they have to convey. Samantha is always a bit of a… well, “bitch” would be too cruel; but she’s cast in the role of “annoying sister”, and while she comes across as a real person, she’s an annoying sister to the audience, too. Mason Jr grows up to be a little bit pretentious — ‘philosophical’ in the way certain teenagers always are, and which you sincerely hope they grow out of or they’ll become a Certain Kind of adult. Some will find him irritating as he progresses through his high school years, again in the way the real-life variety of said teenagers are; others will just find it truthful. All of the acting feels incredibly ‘real’, to the point one just assumes it was all improvised. Apparently that’s not the case — according to Hawke, it was all scripted, with the exception of an amusing-with-hindsight scene in which Masons Sr and Jr discuss the potential for a Star Wars 7.
It’s only as the film comes to a close that some kind of sense of what it all signified comes in to focus. For one part, there’s Mason and his new college friend philosophising in the final scene: to paraphrase, “life isn’t about seizing the moment, it’s about the moment seizing you”. Put another way, all we have is now; however important it may be to learn from the past and plan for the future, they’re gone and not coming back or ahead and going to happen anyway — if you don’t appreciate now, it’ll all just disappear. I felt the more telling scene came a few minutes earlier, just before Mason Jr actually leaves for college: looking at her son about to head off on his own, Olivia breaks down, recalling the repetitiveness and transitory nature of her life — all the divorces, all the struggles to do right by her kids. It’s so much more meaningful because we’ve lived through it with her — we’ve seen it as just a string of moments too; we’ve noticed how it can seem repetitive. “I just thought there would be more,” she wails, echoing the sentiment of… all of us? I’d say if that moment doesn’t resonate for you, you must be one of the lucky ones.
Boyhood is unquestionably an achievement of filmmaking. The commitment to craft a story over such a long period of time is admirable; the skill with which it has been achieved is remarkable. The end result is one that won’t work for everyone. If you like your fiction to be about something exceptional or extraordinary, Boyhood is decidedly the opposite. Linklater has put something of the universality of childhood on screen, however. In no way can the life of Mason Jr be interpreted as a median of everyone’s experiences, but that so much within that is so relatable shows that, however different things may appear, there’s an awful lot that’s the same.
Even more importantly, the film conveys the briefness of our lives. It’s like a film adaptation of Allen Saunders’ quote, made famous by John Lennon: “Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans”. You have to watch out for where your time’s going, or twelve years can race by in under three hours.
The 87th Academy Awards are on Sky Movies Oscars tonight, with red carpet coverage from 11:30pm and the awards ceremony starting at 1:30am.