|Ellar Coltrane in Boyhood (Universal Pictures / IFC)
Frankly, if Boyhood had have been a failure it would still have been worth a gander - the idea of a filmmaker following a kid growing up over the course of twelve years is fascinating, especially in a fictional context. Similar ideas have been done before - like the [ongoing] 7 Up documentary series, or Michael Winterbottom's uneven Everyday (which I reviewed here). And many stars have grown up on screen - the Harry Potter franchise being perhaps the most extreme example. But the sheer scope of a single film filmed over more than a decade, with one young Texan boy (Ellar Coltrane, playing the fictional character of Mason) as the focus of attention, is a project of almost dizzying ambition. Cameras started rolling when Coltrane was six years old, and a final 'cut!' was called a whole twelve years later.
It's appropriate that the man behind the camera here is Richard Linklater, who has become one of cinema's great chroniclers of the passing of time thanks to his immense 'Before...' trilogy (the long gestation period for Boyhood suggests that Celine and Jesse's opus may not have evolved in an entirely accidental way). His cast here - including Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as Mason's parents, and his own daughter Lorelei Linklater as Mason's sister Samantha - came together for a few days every year. The sheer logistics must have been the obstacle to overcome, but thankfully overcome it was.
One of the great things about Boyhood is how it emerges as a grand chronicle of the first decade (and a bit) of the new millennium. Audiences are witness to a rapid technological and cultural evolution in a comparatively short space of time - although the film is pretty epic, coming in just short of the three mark. Linklater thankfully seemed to be aware of this possibility from an early stage, and hence cleverly embeds the film with many period-specific signifiers: it's a tapestry of music, film, social media etc... During one scene we see Mason with a Gameboy Advance, later it's an Xbox, and then it's a Wii. A particularly adorable scene sees the kids giddily attend a midnight launch of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince - a familiar rite for probably millions of kids born between the late 80s and the early 2000s. There's also a very funny scene, filmed around 2009-10, where Mason and his dad discuss the possibility of future Star Wars sequels - a scene that is far more amusing now that Episode VII is imminent.
Even if you are a few years or a couple of decades off Mason's timeline, this is still one of the cinema's most acutely observed chronicles of growing up. This is where we get to that ordinariness - individual scenes and events resonate with great truth and in a very organic way. Excepting a mid-film subplot following the two or three years when Mason's mother marries a college professor (Marco Perella) who turns out to be an abusive, alcoholic asshole (which, scarily, is probably a far more common experience than I'd imagine), there's nothing particularly dramatic or traumatic about Mason's childhood and teenage years. Yeah, there are several divorces and much moving from town to town, but both Mason and Samantha remain well adjusted despite the challenges faced. Linklater spends just as much if not quite a bit more time on the smaller moments than the more melodramatic ones - camping trips with dad, birthday parties, awkward conversations with mom etc... etc... are given a lot of time. Impressively, Linklater also avoids the temptation of visiting the 'easy' mainstays of coming of age stories: we don't see the first day of high school, the first kiss, the loss of virginity or the prom. These and other major events take place off screen, giving a nicely spontaneous feeling that we're dropping in a few times a year. It helps that there's no 'one year later...' cutaways or the like - years segue into each other from scene to scene, and we're trusted enough to catch up ourselves. It all leads to a structure that never feels less than a 'whole' despite the stop-start nature of the film's production.
The highlight of the film is definitely seeing how Coltrane grows up, and how his performance evolves in parallel. It's a wonder to witness. Childlike wonder is replaced by adolescent awkwardness. There's the inevitable period of minor rebellion, and solace found in artistic expression (photography, in this case). During the last year or two particularly, Mason (and Coltrane?) becomes articulate, intelligent and philosophical - albeit in the happily naive manner of an 18 year old about to start college. It's the kind of naturalistic, nuanced performance that could only have emerged thanks to the specifics of the film's production, and honestly was in no way guaranteed - it would be fascinating to hear how much of the film's script was there from the start, and what emerged over the course of the lengthy production. It should be pointed out at this point, however, that Lorelei Linklater's performance is just as good, although Samantha is relegated to the background a little bit during the film's second half. Arquette and Hawke also hold their own, even if their performances simply cannot be quite as unpredictable and dynamic.
To a certain degree, Linklater's style grows up along with his characters. While a coherent and fairly functional visual style is rightly employed throughout (there's nothing particularly remarkable about this visually, a few gorgeous shots aside), there seems to be small but important refinements along the way. Alarm bells went off at the start when there was a full on a assault of popular hits of 2002 soundtracking early scenes, which is a lazy and distracting way of establishing a time period (and one Linklater indulged in back in the Dazed and Confused days) - luckily, this is a temptation largely resisted from there onwards in favour of rarer music cues. It also seems as if scenes are allowed to play out more in their own rhythm and time, particularly conversations - Linklater perhaps encouraged by the success of his work on Before Sunset and A Scanner Darkly.
Although most scenes hit their mark, there's a few odd missteps. This probably annoyed me more than most, but there's a strange scene involving a pipe-layer that is revisited later on in a contrived way that clashes badly with the organic feel of the rest of the film. Linklater also bumps into a probably unavoidable problem: he doesn't seem quite sure where to stop. Indeed, the last half hour - full of graduations, reunions, departures and transitions - offers a plethora of moments that could have served as an appropriate, natural conclusion. Still, it powers on and reaches a very satisfying, poignant moment on Mason's first day of college. It's an ellipsis, and Mason's life is going to continue on after the fade to black (well, not literally speaking). But the final shot is hopeful and joyful: the kid we've gotten to know about to explore the great unknown of adulthood, and few viewers will be wishing him - and, by extent, Ellar Coltrane - anything other than the best of luck.