Many films have a preoccupation with time, taking the viewer on a cinematic journey, whether this is emotionally or geographically, we can be transported to the past, the present to the very near or the very distant future. But few films have presented the passage of the time with such precise clarity and restrained elegance as Richard Linklater’s love letter to youth Boyhood. It has been well documented that this has been a film twelve years in the making using the same actors throughout this period to mark an unprecedented representation of authenticity that takes continuity to a whole new level. Yet this does not detract from the films impressive feat, through Linklater’s dedication the emotional pay off reaches new heights of realism.
Boyhood chronicles the years between 6 and 18 in the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from childhood innocence to teenage adolescence marking the progression from boy to young adult. The film begins with Mason lazing on the grass outside his school; it presents the care free existence of simply being a boy, from playing out with friends, dealing with an older annoying sister (Lorelei Linklater) to sneaking the first peak of lingerie clad ladies in a fashion catalogue. When Mason’s mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) decides to go back to school to study, the family have to make the first of many moves. As they leave the house that they had only ever known, there is a bittersweet scene where Mason sees one of his friends on his bike as they are driving away. His friend simply waves as they leave a scene that will resonate for anyone who as a child had to leave all they knew behind in a heartbeat.
Further moves for the family come as a result of Olivia’s unfortunate luck with men, and Mason has to adjust to different parental figures. His own father Mason Sr (Linklater regular Ethan Hawke) is a weekend dad who still acts like a teen himself, driving a classic but impractical car, working on his music, he seems unable to provide the stability that the boy needs yet it is clear he attains family values and he loves his children. As the family moves and changes, Mason goes through goes through all the milestones of teenage years, his first girlfriend, choosing his college course, his first job, all shot with an unfiltered view that makes watching Boyhood at times feel like a documentary.
Whilst there are dramatic moments in the film, Linklater does not use a defined plot, instead the ebb and flow of life is delicately captured as the year’s progress. The transitions are seamless, melting through the decades before our eyes. Linklater cleverly uses music and historical and cultural moments to pinpoint where we are in time, songs that are identifiable of a certain summer, the Obama presidential campaign and the emergence of Lady Gaga. By using these references it instantly creates a connection with the audience and transports them back to these vignettes of time, the use of music in particular capturing that feeling of where we were when we first heard a particular song.
Ellar Coltrane brings a natural vulnerability to Mason’s early years and if he appears slightly stilted in the latter years, this only adds to the awkward teenage phase. The parent’s growth is also integral to the film, Hawke’s manchild has to accept the inevitability that comes with responsibility and get a ‘real’ job whilst Arquette’s mother struggles with the balance of finding love and keeping her family together. When Mason prepares to leave home, Olivia breaks down, the empty nest syndrome becoming a reality and we, as a viewer, feel her pain as we have watched Mason grow too on the screen.
As Mason arrives at college, a scene of potency for those remembering their own experience of leaving home for the first time, he is questioning what to do with his life. In turn we have watched twelve years pass by and may ask ourselves where the time has gone, what we have become and what we will do with our own lives. If film has the ability to hold a magnifying glass up to real life then Boyhood shows us that time moves quickly and that it is in the smaller moments that we are defined.