By Simon Miraudo
June 7, 2014
Richard Linklater spent 12 years making the bittersweet Boyhood, shooting it piecemeal with actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, as well as newcomers Ellar Coltrane and Linklater’s real-life daughter Lorelei. The elders play the divorced parents, and the youngers their children, lugged around Texas as their mother seeks new suitors and their father seeks himself. Linklater’s intention was to better capture the passage of time in a tale about a family creaking and settling for more than a decade. We get to witness the lines slowly forming on Hawke and Arquette’s faces, and the effect of puberty – that cruel, inconsistent mistress – on Ellar and Lorelei. The effort expended by everyone involved must have been huge. Watching it in this abridged – albeit, 164-minute – form, can’t help but feel glib by comparison. It just moves so quickly, which, I suppose, is the whole point. For those of us who were already marking time by tracking Ethan Hawke’s facial hair, it’ll be a startling experience.
Though no one is spared from the ravages of ageing, the picture specifically pivots around Coltrane’s Mason, hired at the age of six in what has to go on record as one of the riskiest casting decisions in history. How could Linklater have known what kind of person Ellar would become, let alone what kind of actor? Thankfully, he and Lorelei do fine work. It’s unknown if the other young performers around them were intentionally selected to highlight how bad Boyhood could have been if Linklater and his casting director had chosen their leads poorly. One sequence with a group of young boys bonding in an unfinished housing project is so stilted it makes The Room look like, well, Before Sunrise.
The movie opens on Mason gazing dreamily up at the stars, and he passively, thoughtfully observes his regular familial upheavals in a similar manner. (Mum Olivia, trying her best, finds herself attached to – and needing escape from – two different men whose initial sweetness is soured by the circumstances of life). Fun-loving Mason Sr. (Hawke) swoops in every so often to take his kids on adventures, engaging them in hugely ironic conversations that suggest Linklater has some kind of freakish, pop-cultural prescience. (At one point, they admire the talent of not-yet-disgraced baseballer Roger Clemens; later, they agree even if another Star Wars movie was made, no way would it take place after Return of the Jedi). The camera lingers on every fad from the 2000’s you’d already forgotten, from Game Boys to Waveboards, while the soundtrack, comprised of the musical hits of each year, acts as our calendar. It means there is now a Richard Linklater film in the world featuring Mya’s ‘Case of the Ex’.
The plot is sparse, but the cumulative effect of Mason’s tween and teen encounters result in a cathartic release as he finally heads off to college. It’s a more consistent and impressive feat than Michael Winterbottom‘s otherwise involving Everyday (similarly shot over a half-decade, it gained and lost five different DOPs and suffered a host of technical issues). Cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly occasionally employ Terrence Malick‘s floating effect, giving us that ‘unstuck’ feeling, but this ain’t no Tree of Life. A better comparison would be Linklater’s other time-skipping saga, the Before series. Boyhood, too, has many long tracking shots following two characters talking about everything and nothing. It’s not quite as successful as the Befores in conveying how the years change us, for better or worse. It does, however, make you appreciate the ticking clock on all of our lives and will likely leave you cursing the heavens like Liz Lemon in a losing battle with her mortality.
Coltrane’s commitment is admirable and his performance is decent, yet, you only need to turn to Hawke and Arquette to witness the magic that can be spun by professional actors with some wisdom under their belt. In only a select few scenes, Arquette communicates beautifully her character’s mostly off-screen struggle to make a good life for her kids. Hawke’s evolution from ramblin’ musician to accountant with a mini-van does not diminish his innate, boyish charisma. If Boyhood works at all, it’s not because we feel like Mason, remembering what it was like to grasp the banalities of teenagerdom and turn it into something meaningful, but because we endure it like Olivia and Mason Sr., watching these moments slip away and turn into memories at terrifying speed. It’s heartening to see how regrets and heartbreak and disappointments fade away fast. The only price? All the good stuff fades just as quickly.
Boyhood plays the Sydney Film Festival June 7. It arrives in Australian cinemas later this year.