Filmed progressively over 12 years, Boyhood follows the life of Mason Evans Jr (Ellar Coltrane) between ages 6 and 18. Along the way we see how the relationships between him, his separated parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke), his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and those close to him develop as he trundles ever closer to that distant shore of adulthood.
I’m generally at a loss for where to begin with Boyhood. Some people would insist that I err on the side of caution and go from the start and see what form of review emerges as I chronologically assess this latest buffet of a film from Richard Linklater. I’m inclined to follow such a suggestion, as I can’t just spend this article spouting naval-gazing rhetoric about the nature of ill-defined concepts such a beginnings, I mean, what am I, Terrence Malick? That said, I will probably bring back comparisons to buffets and ol’ Terry as when it comes to Boyhood they seem more than relevant observations. But we’ll cross those bridges when we get to them.
The first major problem with reviewing Boyhood is that it isn’t in the strictest sense a film with a beginning, a middle or an end; it’s more a series of poignant vignettes that all come together to form some kind of 12 year tapestry of life in the 2000s-2010s. Not only that but the characters aren’t portrayed as anything other than real, flawed human beings trying to understand just what it is they’re meant to be doing in life. The fact that this applies so readily to both the adult’s and the children’s worlds goes to show just how our childhood never really ends, it just perpetuates in a new form.
“I see what you’re saying,” you quickly assess, “You’re saying that Boyhood is some kind of slowly-shot, naturally-played, 2-hours-and-forty-minutes-long coming-of-age story that ostentatiously harps on about the seemingly-never-ending cycle that is life?” And yes, it does sound like Terrence Malick’s ‘The Tree of Life’ except, EXCEPT, this is a Richard Linklater movie. There’s no time to pepper sunlight-drenched cinematography with the world’s loudest-whispered voice-over, Mason’s got a life to live. Boyhood may seem to play it safe by adhering to a series of comfortable clichés about coming-of-age stories (there’s fights, the occasional broken home, camping trips, annoying siblings, school bullies, failed relationships, etc.) but it’s all portrayed with such honesty that even at their lowest ebb, Mason and his family find a way to get back up. Just like life. Funny, that.
As I said a good few many words ago, this film is acted probably more naturally and casually than you presently live right now, reading this. It helps that Mason’s parental figures are sold incredibly well by the talents of Linklater regular Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette (who deserves far more credit than she’s getting for portraying the most Mum-like Mum I’ve seen in recent cinema [albeit one who sleepwalks into doomed relationships – ed.]), as well as Linklater’s daughter Lorelei portraying Mason’s sister Sam (who nails the whole big-sister role like it was a carpentry project).
That said, the film is called Boyhood, we sort of need a strong, young lead male performance if this thing’s going to take off. This is where Ellar Coltrane comes in, takes the stage (as well as some of the more expensive furniture and kitchen utensils) and all to the sound of rapturous applause.
Now I’m not going to say he’s Captain Charisma, or whatever, because at times Mason is a bit of a tool. The fact that we can be subject to this guy’s life for as long as we are, watch him stumble, fall, and scrap through the good and bad of his childhood and leave the cinema with a burgeoning respect for the lad takes skill. It’s a demanding role, and one that will surely hang over any future projects that Coltrane tries his hand at, but all the same he breezes through it like some kind of Mediterranean squall.
We’re reaching that point in the review where I bring out my critical stick and prod a film in its unseemly and flabby areas in an attempt to ground any and all praise that’s gone before, but Boyhood isn’t the kind of film that falls suspect to such forms of critique. You could blame it for not having a more formulaic story, but it’s not that kind of film. You could blame it for not having instantly-memorable characters, but it’s not that kind of film. You could blame it for not making us really think about, like, the issues, man, but it’s not that kind of film. If it’s anything, Boyhood feels like Richard Linklater distilling the heartfelt chronological continuity of his ‘Before’ trilogy into one, well, masterpiece. And I’ll be damned if he didn’t do it.
Boyhood is a buffet. It’s a smorgasbord of different-sized treats of all kinds of textures and flavours. Some items are wildly different from one another, some we like to revisit and some we can only have a little bit of for our own reasons. Taken at their most atomic each portion would prove to be a pleasing, if insubstantial, part. But at a buffet, you’re never taken with just one small piece; you pull together all manners of strange combinations to fill your platter, you sample all that the table has to offer and take it all in until you are satiated and content. You don’t know when another buffet will come along offering so much and filling you so well again, but it doesn’t matter, because for the time being you are happy with the world and all its offerings, even if you did wish they’d had that bit more satay chicken.