When the marketing rolled out for Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, I was ridiculously keen to go and watch it. A teenage drama filmed over twelve years where we see the same actor start off at age six and end up as an eighteen-year-old. I looked up the cinema times, raring to go, then I spotted the running time: 166 minutes. I’ve had many a rant with friends about films that go past the two-hour mark. Personally, I don’t see the need for it. If a narrative can’t be wrapped up in two hours then that’s a combination of lazy scriptwriting and indulgent direction. As much as I enjoyed The Dark Knight Rises, it didn’t need to clock in at almost three hours. Avatar and the Transformers sequels definitely don’t warrant their excessive running time, and even Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King could have done with a trim here-and-there (Tolkien fans will argue Jackson simply transferred book-to-screen, but I’d argue that book and film are two different mediums for totally different audiences. Readers will happily flick through a book for several hours; cinema audiences aren’t so keen to be deprived of fresh air for that amount of time). There are a number of exceptions: The Godfather has such an intricate, hell of a punch narrative, you don’t notice how long it goes on for. Ridley Scott’s Gladiator feels like a fast-paced ninety-minute blockbuster, when it’s well over two hours long. Grudgingly, I went along to watch Boyhood, wondering how a film about growing hair in weird places, your voice changing, and staring at girls could be stretched out for virtually three hours.
When you stop and think about it, so much could go wrong with a project like Boyhood. You’re taking a massive gamble with a child actor, hoping he’s not going to turn out like Hayden Christensen. Also, there are plenty of coming of age dramas out there. While the filming of Boyhood is unlike any other, what can you say about adolescence that’s different to other entries in this sub genre?
There is so much going on in Linklater’s latest. It starts off simple enough; Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) spend their time bickering, reading Harry Potter, collecting toys, and riding bikes. Their parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette) are divorced; their mother struggling being a single parent whilst going back to college, while their father is a dreamer, obsessed with the Beatles and song writing, but can’t hold down a job. As Mason and Samantha get older things get more complicated, both for them and their parents. Mason and Samantha discover the opposite sex, drugs, alcohol, as well as wondering what they’re supposed to do with the rest of their lives. As for the grown ups, Arquette’s life goes from bad to worse, the men in her life all untrustworthy alcoholics, yet Hawke manages to turn his life around, working in a respectable job and has his own family.
What makes Boyhood such a hard-not-to-like three hours is Linklater’s script, and his observations of teenagers and parent/child relationships. I regularly had a smile on my face as I watched moments I recognised from growing up, while the couple sat next me laughed and glanced at each other as they had lived these same scenes with their own children. Boyhood is full of gentle, well thought out set pieces: Mason talks to his soon-to-be girlfriend for the first time, no flirting, no cheesy chat up lines, just two people being open and honest with each other; Hawke tries to have the birds and the bees chat with his children, struggling with what to say as he’s barely grown up himself; At a house party, Mason and his teenage friends talk about when and to who they lost their virginity, all too obvious that every one of them is lying.
Boyhood often feels like a polished documentary, so believable are the performances, both from the lead and supporting cast. Considering Ellar Coltrane has never acted before, and from an early age he has had to, on-and-off, play the same role for twelve years, he does a perfect job. His transformation from a shy boy obsessed with video games and fantasy novels, to being a mini version of his father, is skilful and understated. You notice his change through mannerisms and the way he talks to people, mirroring how Hawke behaved early on in the film, until he ends up being a gentle, charismatic young adult.
Ethan Hawke steals every scene as Mason Senior. When Hawke first arrives, he’s moved back from Alaska, having spent time there to write songs, rediscover himself (and not having much success with either). Mason Senior is naïve and irresponsible, a child in adult form. He also loves his children and wants to get to know them. During one of his fortnightly visits, he tells them, “I don’t want to be that dad who asks, “What have you been up to?” and his kids go, “Not much”.” He’s this energetic, stubbornly optimistic, fun guy to be around. You watch Boyhood almost wishing Hawke was your dad. One of many scenes that bring a smile to your face is when Mason Senior gives his son a CD he put together of the best songs John, Paul, George and Ringo came up with post-Beatles, what Hawke calls “The Black Album.” You can’t miss the irony that this is the closest Mason Senior has got to bringing out his own album. Like Coltrane’s transformation as he grows up, Hawke does the same, now this soft-talking, more relaxed man who can pass on advice to his son as he’s been through the things Mason is going through, most of it up until recently.
As a child, Lorelei Linklater provides most of the film’s laughs. We first see her annoying her little brother by singing and dancing to Britney Spears, having a quick answer for everything her mother tells her. What Richard Linklater wisely avoids with Samantha is that she’s not your stereotype obnoxious, annoying sister. Mason and Samantha squabble when they’re children, but they’re also the best of friends, which continues throughout Boyhood, Samantha growing up to be a smart, thoughtful young woman who is always on her brother’s side. Most of the critics’ praise has gone to Coltrane, but Lorelei Linklater is just as wonderful to watch.
Patricia Arquette once again gives another complex performance here as Mason and Samantha’s mother. She tells one of her many let downs for a boyfriend that she grew up having to look after her own mum, now she’s got kids of her own to look after; she’s never had the opportunities most people take for granted. She wants to better herself, going to college, dating men who, on first impressions seem smart, driven, trying to save up so she’s not always struggling for money. Life however, cruelly manages to find a way of dragging her right back to square one. You can’t fail to be moved at one scene towards the end of Boyhood, when Mason is moving out, a saddened Arquette asking her son just what has she got to show for her life. Mason’s answer comes straight from the heart of a son who loves his mother.
The songs Linklater has picked for his soundtrack are carefully used, not just reminding you what year the film has moved on to, but they’re all songs that were played endlessly on the radio, that most people will have heard and have some kind of attachment to. Opening to Coldplay’s Yellow, you get this sense of nostalgia, you instantly know where you were and what you were doing when that song was literally everywhere. There is no orchestral score in the film, instead Linklater dots Boyhood with songs that will stir up emotions in anyone who hears them: I danced to this song, I broke up to this song, I f**king hate this song!
Linklater gives us a few exceptions, more recent songs that, for most people won’t have that same attachment. For one of Boyhood’s closing scenes, Linklater chose Arcade Fire’s Deep Blue. On first hearing Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs, Deep Blue doesn’t immediately stand out as a classic, so strong is their third album. When you partner it with this scene, it manages to sum up many of Boyhood’s themes: reminiscing on how great it was to be a child, and how frightening it is when you realise you’re an adult now, you have to go out into that crazy, scary, big wide world.
Boyhood ‘s 166 minutes occasionally meander. There are a handful of scenes that, you could argue, could have been cut (some of Coltrane’s pretentious teenage rants, while true-to-life, as his argument falls in on itself the more he goes on, don’t really need to be there), but Linklater’s script is heartfelt and insightful, it will make you laugh because you recognise these small, forgotten moments that are happening onscreen. Very few films are as charmingly honest as Boyhood.
4 out of 5