Sometimes films come with such a weight of critical expectation that you can’t help but be a bit disappointed by them, and I confess the first time I saw Richard Linklater’s latest film, the one in which he has famously returned to the same actors each year over a 12-year period, I was a little unsure as to whether it was really all that interesting or original. For certainly, the concept is not unusual — a number of projects (primarily documentary) can attest to that. And yet, for its two-and-a-half hour running time, it exerts a real fascination, albeit one that’s difficult to quite pin down. It’s the same feeling you get from looking back at old photo albums, and in many ways that’s what Boyhood feels like: it feels like nostalgia for a life you’ve not even lived (and in that respect, it’s not unlike Marcel Proust’s grand novel À la recherche du temps perdu, “In Search of Lost Time”). As such, it’s the most refined expression yet of director Richard Linklater’s fascination with time and its passing — something he touches on in almost all his films, most notably the trilogy of Before films which follow the same characters over the course of almost 20 years.
Whether the film reminds you of your own childhood is rather dependent on where you grew up — personally I found a lot of the detail rather alien to my own upbringing. Being set in Texas, there’s a fair amount of to-do related to guns and religion that just didn’t feature at all for me, and needless to say the specific pop-cultural references are a generation removed, though that didn’t stop me from smiling at a lot of it (a Britney recital by the protagonist’s sister, a young girl singing High School Musical songs, the changing technology of video gaming, et al.). A lot of the pop culture is very cannily integrated in fact, almost commenting on the progress of people’s lives. For example, I liked the way that the music which is played by the boy’s father Mason (Ethan Hawke) becomes progressively more stuck in the past as he grows older.
It’s this kind of accrual of small detail that I found most affecting, and a lot of that comes from the way the film is structured as a series of little vignettes conjoined not by the weight of narrative expectation as by the very fact of time passing. As Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) grows older, this detail starts to become referential not just to pop culture but to his own life, as we get a sense of the way Mason Jr is developing. Because of the way it’s filmed, we don’t get to experience all those milestones, and there’s a certain amount of blurring of time between the passing years — it’s sometimes only from slight changes to hairstyles that one realises a year has passed, as the family deals with some of mother Olivia’s poor relationship choices, or Mason Jr’s desultory summer jobs. In fact, Patricia Arquette’s work as Olivia is some of the best acting in the film, although Linklater’s daughter Lorelei as Mason Jr’s sister Samantha also lights up the first half of the film, when Mason Jr just seems a bit mopey.
If there’s a drawback to the film, it’s that some of the dialogue seems a bit self-aware (in a way that anyone who’s seen Waking Life will be familiar). Some of the scenes too might come across as overly melodramatic (one stepfather drunkenly lashing out, or a Mexican restaurant manager thanking Olivia for her wise advice), but within the flow of such a long film, these events provide some tonal variation. Indeed, if on my first viewing I found that heartfelt speech in the restaurant, or Mason Jr’s final words delivered while staring off into the middle-distance, to be a bit cheesy, the second time they seemed rather to be among the film’s most affecting moments. This is because even if the script can get a bit sententious, the way it’s delivered by the actors is just perfect: the look in Arquette’s eyes when she is thanked, sitting next to her two grown children as they fuss and moan like stroppy teenagers, is what that scene is all about, just as it’s in Mason Jr’s coy glances at the girl he’s sitting next to during that final dialogue scene (PS I don’t think there are any spoilers, per se, to this kind of filmmaking).
As a film, it could easily be “Girlhood” or “Motherhood” if edited differently — maybe even “Fatherhood”, although Ethan Hawke’s dad takes most of the film to come to terms with his responsibilities. It says a lot about what it is to grow up in America in the 2000s, without resorting to manufactured melodrama or tub-thumping over various tabloid-favourite hot topics. It leaves me with a sense of optimism, both for the future of film and for these specific characters, and I look forward to seeing it again.
Director/Writer Richard Linklater; Cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly; Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater; Length 166 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Haymarket, London, Friday 25 July 2014 (and at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Monday 14 July 2014).