This is the seventh in a series of blogs I’ve called “A Year of Unlimited”, which isn’t perhaps the catchiest way to put it, but encapsulates my attempts to blog about every film I see while I’m signed up to the Unlimited service. I’m not linking to every one, so go and find them yourselves!
The nature of modern cinema, and the prevalence of blockbuster films and their popularity, mean that smaller independent movies don’t always get the attention and respect they deserve. So when I started hearing, about four months ago, that Boyhood was perhaps one of the best films this year and even of this decade, I was intrigued. Cineworld in Witney had not shown the film at all during its general release, but its Take 2 promotion (two tickets for £11, free popcorn and drinks) gave me and a host of other people the opportunity to see this highly-regarded film. And quite honestly, I’ve not seen anything like it before, and doubt I will again.
Boyhood is an experiment between director Richard Linklater (an indie director of films including Dazed and Confused and A Scanner Darkly, among others) and a number of actors and actresses to portray – through filming for a week or so every year for 12 years – the progression of a young boy’s life and the experiences he has moving from childhood to adulthood. Starting in 2002, Linklater’s film was clearly a labour of love and patience, with stars Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette along for the ride alongside young actor Ellar Coltrane as the “boy” of the title. Coltrane plays Mason, with his separated parents played by Hawke and Arquette, whilst Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays his precocious sister Samantha, and while you have your preset expectations of where the story will take you, and what will happen to this fractured family, the film plays everything out in a more normal, average and more believable manner, giving you the sense you’ve almost spied on a real family and its growth.
The experience of watching a three-hour movie in which you see a young actor grow before your eyes is something else – there have been television shows in the UK that achieve the same effect – but this is a distilled, film version of 12 years, spanning from six to 18, in which Mason grows, experiences and matures while life throws its unpredictable obstacles and trials in the way. Coltrane starts out as an obviously unsure child actor, but his ability to portray this fictionalised, parallel version of his own maturity improves as he grows older, and those points at which you remember that, indeed this is the same kid who was only six about 20 minutes ago, continuously remind you of the amazing achievement you’re witnessing. And despite his lesser abilities as an actor, he still manages to hold his own against his more acclaimed parental acting colleagues.
Hawke, as Mason Sr., starts out as the average Hollywood deadbeat, distanced father, but as I said before, the path the film’s narrative takes him on, and his largely sympathetic and encouraging behaviour towards his kids, is completely different to what you’re conditioned by cinema to expect, and he comes out at the end as that unique thing: a cinema dad that, for all his faults, is a good dad. Arquette, as Mason’s mum Olivia, is excellent as a woman who just cannot get any luck when it comes to men, but for whom her children always come first, and she’s without a doubt (besides Coltrane at times) the soul of this film, mostly due to the fact that it’s her whom we experience the emotional highs and lows with. Linklater’s Samantha is perhaps less-equipped in an acting sense for her role of older sister, but she is obviously not the focus, and manages to authentically convey the inexplicable sibling nonsense that most of us understand only too well.
The film feels a lot longer than its three hour running time, but this is likely due to its drama and story basis – and this ingratiates you into the story, offering a quiet and contemplative experience. The marking of the film’s different years by music, alongside script references to events and technology, give kids and teens of the last 15 years a touchstone to look back nostalgically to our own younger lives, and constantly reinforce the sheer time this experiment took to produce. The peaks and troughs of the family’s experiences never really fly too high or too low, save for the first of Olivia’s newer partners, which provided one of the more uncompromising and darker aspects of the life of some families. But then family life isn’t like Hollywood portrays it – we don’t all have, to paraphrase Homer Simpson, “the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs”, so this film is refreshing for presenting a more nuanced look at the life of a young person growing up.
Many critics and reviewers have latched on their own life experiences to this film in their acclaim of Boyhood, but I can’t say I can for much of what Mason experiences! However, I can easily say I really did enjoy this thoughtful and quite amazing experience, and I highly recommend it.