Unique. Ordinary. Exceptional.
Richard Linklater began a project so extraordinary there is next to no precedent to compare it to. Linklater started this ambitious project in 2002 with a seven-year-old Ellar Coltrane and they filmed for two weeks every summer until 2013. The resulting product was the portrayal of boy’s journey into adulthood with an authenticity and ordinariness that is bewitching.
Linklater, of course, is no stranger to peculiar projects. This is the guy who somehow made a trilogy out of nothing but intelligent conversation (Before series) and garnered Jack Black (School of Rock) critical acclaim. Linklater’s penchant for the unorthodox has seen him gather many followers of independent cinema while his more mainstream efforts hint towards some box office potential. But here Linklater goes back to his bread and butter. And does so swimmingly.
Boyhood follows six-year old Mason Jr (Coltrane) through his journey from childhood into adolescence. Throughout we see how he examines (and re-examines) the world around him along with his most important relationships. Linklater doesn’t show us more than he has to; we eavesdrop on Mason’s voyage to manhood through snapshots that silently move from one on to another. There’s no massive fanfare, one moment we see a young Mason quietly enjoying Dragonball Z and we seamlessly move on to his first day at a new school. And make no mistake, keeping the palette and mise-en-scene nigh on identical over a twelve-year stretch is an impressive achievement. But, typical Linklater, he makes this shit look easy.
Mason Jr’s naïve honesty invites us to him immediately. From believing he can sharpen rocks with pencil sharpeners to the heartbreak of having his locks shaved off, we’re instantly charmed by this innocent-eyed seven year old as he progresses through teenagehood. We eavesdrop on how Mason deals with the changing circumstances that surround him. There’s a wide-eyed wonder about him which makes for good viewing. But what’s so interesting is that he’s so… ordinary. He likes riding bikes, playing video games and is constantly questioning what’s happening around him: why does his family keep moving? Does his mother still love his father? Why is his sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei) singing Britney Spears at such an ungodly hour? Is Mom gonna catch me watching porn this time? From the tragedy of having his locks cut off by another ‘in the parade of asshole’ stepdads, we see Linklater’s ability to make mundane and typical boyhood milestones enchanting and this is where Boyhood excels.
Linklater’s greatest strength has always been realising his themes of love and life through dialogue. As with the acclaimed Before trilogy, the dialogue embodies the introspective, profound questions that overwhelm us as young people at some point. Mason indulges in intelligent conversations about life, love and all the nonsense attached to it (is social media really turning us into robots? Is life about seizing the moment, or the moment seizing us?). It’s reminiscent of how well Linklater attacked theme in Before (Sunrise had me viewing the screenplay form in a totally different way) And it’s executed by the cast so well it’s neither cheesy nor heavy-handed. This is screenwriting at its best. Quentin Tarantino would’ve been proud of this.
One criticism though, (after all this is a critique) is that as Mason gets older he reminds me of the cynicism I saw in Sunrise’s Jesse Wallace (Ethan Hawke). Maybe I’m knit picking but someone with the brains and ambition of Linklater could at least try to touch new ground with his male protagonists.
Boyhood explores time and how people are drawn to the complicated. As we watch Mason grow, we also see the trials his mother (Patricia Arquette) incurs, his offbeat and charming father’s (Hawke) reluctant acceptance that even he has to grow up at some point. These relationships plus his sister’s remind the audience that as you grow and change, your family do to. Sam went from being the joker of the pack to a broody teenage daughter, after all. Every time we’re quietly moving from one phase to another; the beauty of Mason’s silent and seamless transitions is it reflects how parents see their children: watching them every day until they finally realise that they’ve changed dramatically without so much as a murmur, something which Mason’s mom struggles to deal with towards the end (‘The only milestone left in my life is my funereal!’ she cries). From Mason’s early bewilderment as to why an early crush didn’t like Dark Knight and Pineapple Express as much as he did to the acute frustration and anger only a teenage break-up can cause.
I found Boyhood so fascinating relatable I couldn’t help but smiling as I empathised with Mason’s changing circumstances and relationships. I think for any young man who watches this movie will feel the same. This low-key, small-on-scope-but-big-on-intimacy movie is one I recommend to anyone watching, especially to my brothers out there. Beside yourself, you’ll catch yourself smiling at how much you can relate Mason’s (and I guess Coltrane’s as well) journey.
(P.S a friend of mine who watched with me made me aware of an interesting scene in the movie: Did you see the link between Mason and a certain boy wizard?)