Thank God for Boyhood. Or more precisely, thank God for Richard Linklater.
Boyhood is the story of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his life along with his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and his divorced parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke). When we meet Mason he is 5 and when we leave him he is 18. It is not just Mason that grows, each character is introduced as adolescent. Not just Mason’s older sister, but also the dead-beat “musician” dad who likes bowling and french fries, the needy mother who clings to a series of bad husbands.From the first day of elementary school, to the first day of college, Boyhood is a photo album of a life spectacular in it’s banality.
Linklater was the mastermind behind this completely innovative way to shoot a film about growing up. Over the course of 12 years, he gathered the same cast and shot moments of a life, a little bit each year. Richard Linklater devised a childishly simple plan to get at the hearts of an audience and deliver more moments of profound honesty to a film then has been done, maybe ever. And he did it by not following the rules.
Boyhood is far from fault-free. There are points where the dialogue can get clumsy and too leading (i.e. “life doesn’t give you bumpers!”). Many of the supporting characters are broad and seem out of place amongst the much more nuanced main characters. The second half of the film seems to support a floating first half, and overall, its grandiose 3-hour length seems to suggest a certain universal quality that can come off as preachy, instead of sweet. But this technique shows potential, and more than that, it shows sensitivity to honesty.
More to the point, Boyhood is not a perfect film, but instead is an incredibly important film. It falls into the category of those films that first experimented with sound and color because those filmmaking pioneers also refused to follow the rules, they took what seemed like a gimmick and revolutionized cinematic storytelling.
This 12-year “gimmick” works for this story of Boyhood, for many reasons. We, as the audience get to check in with people who quickly become family to us. Brilliantly the film does not always check in at the seemingly important moments in a young life; we don’t watch as Mason loses his first tooth, or learns to ride a bike or drive; those benchmark’s which, looking back say little about who you grow up to be. Instead the film concentrates on father/ son chats about Star Wars and awkward family dinners. They are the moments that encapsulate the feeling of a year, a place in time, the almost mundane that when placed side by side become the ebb and flow of a life, the building blocks of Mason’s personality.
We also get to remember a recent past that is not “put on”. The film is period piece perpetually filmed in the present and what you get from that is a time capsule effect. The nuances of clothes, music, and even down to the graphic designs of logos are real and filmed without thought. Then when put together we get to travel time in a very real way, where every detail matters. Like photos found in an old box, special only with a little bit of age.
The genius of this technique for this particular story is encapsulated in the moment of Mason’s graduation, he takes a picture with his family and we take a moment to look upon 4 transformed individuals, 4 characters who have ridden the roller coaster played by 4 actors who have ridden right along with them. Now, I, of course, can’t speak for Ethan Hawke, I can’t tell you for sure that his stunning performance was absolutely due to this unusual shooting style, that age make-up and changing hairstyles wouldn’t have achieved the same mastery over the character, but it doesn’t matter, a great performance was achieved, and this technique was used to get it.
What does matter is that Richard Linklater opened the door of innovation to other filmmakers, he (perhaps) inadvertently gave them a challenge to think outside of the box, tell a story the way it needs to be told. Period. He showed an immense faith in the audience and a disregard for a long-standing tradition of “how films are made” and fought for honesty instead. He absolutely won that fight, and we, the audience, get to reap in his success.
Watch the trailer for Boyhood here: