It’s supremely impressive to consider that Richard Linklater, his cast and crew spent twelve years filming the fictional story of a young man coming of age in America, but it’s even more impressive to consider that the structural conceit of the film isn’t even close to the best thing about it.
Where Linklater could have essentially reenacted Michael Apted’s 7 Up series, he only relies on the advancement of age perhaps as a crutch in the film’s opening 45 minutes, where the narrative clearly supplements ambiguous and uncertain development for a clichéd beginning. Once the film moves beyond this and seems to find not just one but several narrative footholds, the film becomes something else entirely, an intensely detailed look at how childhood conditions us for the outside world that may be one of the best usages of perspective and (theoretically) memory that I have ever seen in a film. Reflecting our own abilities of recall, Linklater has every scene of young childhood run quite quickly, the notable exception being scenes of domestic violence, which can be said to have seared themselves in the mind of the protagonist. As Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) comes of age, though, the sequences run longer and longer, reflecting the notion of revelling in the present and also our short-term memories1
This subtle structural conceit within the blatant one calls to mind James Benning’s notions of perspective and cultural memory, particularly in American Dreams (lost and found), which, like Boyhood, uses musical cues in surprising ways, depending on the information around it.2Here, a Soulja Boy remix by Travis Barker of Blink-1823 starts as a humorous (and perhaps cringe inducing) reminder of youthful pop culture taste but suddenly shifts its tonal drive when the song fades out, as Mason finds his mother in the garage on the ground, with his stepfather standing over her. In another scene, Linklater plays with collective memory by showing the Funny or Die sketch ‘The Landlord’, which, while still funny, has a fairly crushing thematic undercurrent when used in the film – jokes about alcoholism sting when shown right after Mason Jr.’s stepfather destroys crockery in an alcohol-fuelled rage. Mason Jr., when asked why he keeps watching the video, only says “because it’s funny”.
This metatextual relationship with other films and songs is part of what makes Boyhood so engaging.4 It uses contextual music to signify time passing which, although an obvious device, ends up having a profound impact. In addition to his aforementioned use of music as contrast, he is also able to force the audience to recall their own memories and reflections on that time through – when Vampire Weekend and Arcade Fire were played, not to mention Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, a sense of the now fully came to be, we were thrust into the present with music leading the way.5 Perhaps the soundtrack was even more powerful for me because I am vaguely in the same age range as Mason Jr. What that means, though, is that for viewers aged 17-23, the music means something more, having both personal and contextual power.6
Linklater also uses the film as a refraction of his career and relationship with filmmaking.7 The Before trilogy comes to mind in scenes where Ethan Hawke and Particia Arquette, the birth parents, are in the same room, which, like the Before series, happens years apart. Here, though, Linklater positions these characters in the exact same position as the audience during the gulf between Before Sunset and Before Midnight – we know as much as they do about the other’s life. Linklater’s second-feature and first success, Slacker, is one of my favourite films ever, so seeing Mason Jr. in his car, driving to Austin with his girlfriend and having a rant about Facebook and living with technology rocketed me back to the opening sequence of Slacker, where Linklater himself sits in the back of a taxi and talks about dreams as parallel universes on his way to Austin.8
At times, Linklater seems to be channelling the aforementioned Benning but also Gus van Sant, the similarities in the darkroom sequences and high school to Elephant are undeniable, and the way he shoots the open road, with a wistful romanticism, calls to mind My Own Private Idaho. Boyhood may be Linklater’s first film where he actually romanticises American, specifically Texan, locations. Whilst Slacker is emblematic of Austin and the people within it, the rest of his films don’t put as much a focus on setting and place, other than the European-set Before films. Shots of Hawke’s character, Mason Sr. taking his son hiking are able to merge natural beauty and universal questions of fatherhood – nature and nurture literally shown side by side. It’s to Linklater’s credit, too, that he doesn’t entirely rely on clichéd role models for Mason Jr. Whilst Ethan Hawke starts out as a burnout who reaps the benefits of parenthood without having to deal with any struggles, his evolution over the film is a pleasant surprise. Although having two alcoholic stepfathers might seem a little too on-the-nose, Linklater adeptly distinguishes them through both mens’ approaches to children and life itself. Teachers and bosses also have a distinct impact on Mason Jr.’s life, with the photography teacher who delivers a speech about talent that manages to run the gamut from patronising to oddly sincere and Richard Robichaux, who steals absolutely every scene in which he appears, as the operator of a restaurant who “believes in Mason”.
Whilst fatherhood is a major element of the film, from continuing family traditions like trap shooting9 to adopting affectations that reflected his various father figures10, I do think that Boyhood may have been a wayward title for the film, considering that Patricia Arquette could be seen to be the film’s emotional anchor. Although there are long stretches of the film in which her character does not appear, it is hard not to be completely blown away with her performance. The way in which she is able to guide the younger actors in the early scenes of the film and thereafter develops a real and organic sense of character over time for herself is remarkable. Her final scene, in which she laments the state of her life and the in-built life structure of raising a child, is heartbreaking and perfect. Praise should also go to Lorelei Linklater, the daughter of the director, who turns in a quietly brilliant performance as Mason Jr.’s sister Samantha. Linklater the younger does some brilliant work with silence, in particular during sequences with the first alcoholic stepfather, university professor Bill.11
The last section of the film, in which Mason Jr. develops a taste for photography and personal independence, can’t help but be emblematic of something like Joyce’s A Portait of the Artist as a Young Man and, like that book, Linklater doesn’t at all attempt to craft a story intentionally universal or all-encompassing. It’s all about a perspective, with the level of emotional depth and insight that makes it so universally compelling. Not only is the narrative arc a Künstlerroman, the film itself can be read to be one, Linklater’s filmmaking style changing and maturing as the film progresses.12 Boyhood, then, is a filmic triumph, not just in what it achieves on a structural level but in how it develops a bond with the audience, showcasing something sincere and genuine – a life lived.
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