Director Richard Linklater has long been an expert in capturing ordinary life on screen. The most obvious example of this is his Before trilogy; Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight. These films, made and set around a decade apart, give us snap shots of the lives of the couple Jesse and Celine and are largely improvised by actors Ethan Hawke and Julie Deply. Nothing huge happens, nothing that many of the audience won’t have experienced themselves, but the movies are great. It feels as though we are watching real people.
Other pictures in his filmography such as Dazed and Confused, Tape and Waking Life all have a similar feel and even ‘bigger’ stories like School of Rock, A Scanner Darkly and Bernie show much of what could be considered the mundanity of human existence.
None of it is mundane with Linklater though. He shows these little life moments but rather than being unexceptional they are common and relatable which is to be celebrated. Ordinary is not a negative term for this director, there is something fantastic about the experiences we all share. These are the occurrences that connect us.
Boyhood is Linklater’s masterpiece of the ordinary. Here he doesn’t just capture life on screen, he captures a life on screen. The film shows the experiences of a boy growing up from six to eighteen but, as no doubt you will be fully aware, it was actually shot over a twelve year period with the same actors.
The fractured family at the heart of the film are portrayed by Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke again, Ellar Coltrane and the director’s own daughter Lorelei Linklater. We see them age, and in the case of the last two, grow up right in front of us. The Harry Potter series gave us the same thing of course but consider that they took longer shooting this one film than all eight of those.
Quite aside from any other aspect of the film, Boyhood is a logistical triumph. There is so much that could have gone wrong with this project. Something could have happened to one of the adult leads but I guess they’d have written their way around this. What though if one of the kids had turned out to have no screen presence past early adolescence or if they (or their parents) had simply refused to participate anymore? This would have been trickier to manage. (Clearly this was less of an issue with Lorelei Linklater. The character does seem a little subdued in the later stages of the film so perhaps she lost enthusiasm for Dad’s project but wasn’t allowed to quit) Participation in this film was clearly an immense commitment for everyone involved. In fact Arquette has talked about financial sacrifices in some interviews. Still the effort has paid off because the end product is excellent.
The film does inevitably feel a little episodic as many characters come and go but actually life is a bit like that. This also means that particular moments of drama don’t really develop and other develop too quickly but again, this is not supposed to be a soap opera. Sometimes things do flare up and sometimes they peter out, life is not a series of story threads. There are emotional moments of course but we never get grandstanding histrionics. Life literally goes on and all the way through the sense of realism is massively enhanced by seeing the kids slowly mature.
There are times when the film seems to be saying something bigger about America. The McCain/Obama election features and at one point a new set of step grandparents give our boy a Bible and gun for his fifteenth birthday, but mostly it is the smaller cultural markers that matter.
This, in fact, is another area in which the movie succeeds. There are so many things in the film that stand as effective indicators of their time and clearly none of them were filmed with the benefit of hindsight. I know the film has been edited in the last year or so but they had to know to shoot the stuff in the first place. It is possible that there are hundreds of references to the pop culture that time forgot on the cutting room floor but the inclusion of gameboys, Britney, Harry Potter book releases, High School Musical, Wii Sports and the Twilight books just add a nostalgic authenticity.
Many UK critics listed Boyhood as their film of 2014 and, while I wouldn’t have put it at the top of my list, it is an impressive film. I hope it picks up lots of trophies in the awards ceremonies, as it looks set to do, as getting this film right would have been a lot harder than Linklater has made it look.
Is this one for the kids?
Boyhood is rated 15. There is a little bit of sex talk and quite a lot of swearing but probably no more than in Secondary school playgrounds all over the country.
The Ripley Factor
The main female in the film is not the protagonist’s sister but his mother. It is a great part for Patricia Arquette and it is good that she is getting some awards attention. Like everyone in the film she is portrayed as a very real character and is believably flawed. She makes some bad life choices for both her and her children but she is smart and she is a good mother. Maybe not a fantastic female role model but a realistic one.