This review first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times, 24th August 2014
Without question my Film of the Year So Far (and with nearly two-thirds down, that’s not a trivial declaration), Boyhood may be notable for its form rather than its content, but both aspects are exemplars of How to Make a Great Film. Together the process and the story combine to deliver a hugely affecting cinematic experience which is well worth the nearly three hours you’ll spend on it. And the three more when you vow to see it again.
The content is simple enough: young Mason is your average boy growing up in a middle class household in Texas. His parents have separated and occasionally mom struggles with raising him and his sister Samantha. Sometimes there’s a new man on the scene, although Mason’s interactions with his birth father are convivial enough. He’s basically a well-adjusted kid experiencing a fairly typical childhood.
However, the form is ground-breaking: 12 years ago director Richard Linklater cast a young boy named Ellar Coltrane against well-known actors Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette, and started shooting a movie about the life of an ordinary family over a passage of time.
But instead of employing different ages of actors and knocking out a feature film in the six months it usually takes to shoot a movie, Linklater had grander ambitions.
Between 2002 and 2013, he and his cast and crew would meet once a year for a few days at a time to develop and film new scenes, focussing on quotidian plot-points rather than big life events, with his primary intention being to capture the boy’s real-time growth into teenage-hood. So we see the storyboarded parents split up and new partners introduced. The boy grows long hair; he takes up photography, learns to drive. Each of the family dramas is recognisable, familiar, resonant.
The result is a simply stunning 160-minute chronology of one’s school years, and the associated travails of adjusting to upheavals in family life. Hawke and Arquette are superb, their aging more subtle than the children’s but still appropriately noticeable, but it is Coltrane upon whom the director took a punt in casting, and boy, did that punt pay off. From the opening shot of his lying gazing at the sky through to a nicely bookended moment also set amongst natural beauty, Coltrane is effortless in front of the camera, and our disbelief at his really being “Mason” is completely suspended. There is something indescribably uncanny about watching this lad morph slowly before our eyes – the hair gets shaggier, the chin is suddenly wispier – but the effect is somehow very moving indeed.
Consistent with the director whose famous Before (Sunrise, Sunset, Midnight) trilogy demonstrated his fascination with the passing of time, Boyhood’s backstory is endlessly fascinating. For starters, the fictionalised story was scripted by Linklater but he would brief his cast months before the shoot, inviting them to choose the song they would listen to on a filmed family car-trip and asking Coltrane to make a note of his conversations should he happen to fall in love with a girl (Linklater wanted to capture how teens actually speak rather than write his “old person’s” take on young love). Capitalising on this commitment to authenticity, as Coltrane developed an interest in photography in real life, Linklater wrote the hobby into his character.
It totally works. What became Mason’s (and Coltrane’s) journey into manhood is one you’ll want to witness all over again.