Wednesday, 16 July 2014


In recent years, much has been made of the rise of television as a superior form of popular entertainment to film. It is said that a film cannot provide the prolonged character development nor capture the subtle nuances of their relationships the same way that a bulky box-set with several dozen hours worth of material can. Where are the cinematic equivalents of The Sopranos or Breaking Bad?

When Richard Linklater began shooting Boyhood way back in 2002, The Sopranos was only three seasons old while The Wire had only just begun - the golden era of TV was still in its infancy. Now, twelve years later, Boyhood is finally in cinemas and providing audiences everywhere with the same intimate, compulsive experience as the best HBO drama does.

The nearest small-screen precedent to Linklater’s film is however Up, the documentary series that airs every seven years to catch up with the lives of the fourteen people it first reported on in 1964 back when they were just seven years old. Similarly, Linklater has ambitiously shot the same cast for fifteen days in each of the last twelve years, although he has compiled all his footage for a single, feature length film that attempts to chart the protagonist Mason’s (Ellar Coltrane) childhood.

What results is a unique cinematic triumph. Linklater has transcended the usual limitations of charting a character’s development into adulthood by coupling it with an actor’s development, rather than resorting to the usual methods of either using different actors or trying to make the same actor look older or younger.

Consequently, the film is startlingly authentic. The young actors have grown with their characters, and were apparently encouraged to collaborate with the script by drawing upon their own lives and the kind of things they get up to. The film functions as a kind of time capsule, documenting subtle period details in each year of shooting. Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ and The Hives’ ‘Hate to Say I Told You So’ open the film and date it in the early 00s, but what is really striking is the development of technology: Mason is shown playing on a Game Boy Advance, an X-Box and a Wii at different points in his life, mobile phones play an increasingly important role in the plot, and by the age of eighteen he’s considering deleting his Facebook account.

The film’s unique form grants it a fascinatingly dual perspective. In one respect it is shot in the present and therefore looks at things the way they were at the time, but the editing process has occurred years afterwards and perceives the same happenings as in the past. A scene set just before the 2008 presidential election, for instance, in which one woman is shown passionately enthusing about Barack Obama, evokes both the sense of optimism at the time as well as the feelings of disappointment and disillusionment that a contemporary perspective feels looking back.  

As for the characters and the story, Boyhood exhibits a naturalistic rather than melodramatic tone. Linklater seems to have gone out of his way to make the characters seem ordinary – Mason, his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) and his mother (Patricia Arquette) make up a middle-class, middle-income family, and the film is full of easily recognisable circumstances, like Mason’s first day at school, his first crush, fights with his sister, hanging out in the suburbs, moving house etc.

As such there is little in the way of deep conflict or big drama – aside from the tension between the family and its estranged father (Ethan Hawke, possibly the most compelling performance of them all), and one episode involving Mason’s step-dad – and towards the end of the film the characters’ main concerns become more existential, fretting over who they are and where their life is headed. Nonetheless, the film remains absorbing throughout thanks to universally excellent acting and Linklater’s intimate, unobtrusive style, and it is a great pleasure to become so emotionally invested in these characters’ lives.

Following 2013’s Before Midnight, Linklater is possibly the most exciting director around at the moment. His eagerness for committed, long-term projects and his interest in themes of how relationships develop over time and the functioning of broken nuclear families are apparent in both, and few films have ever captured people so naturally. Boyhood will surely be remembered as a masterpiece, and if Linklater can continue to make films of this quality, he’ll keep audiences logging off Netflix to head out to the cinema. 


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