It has been just over six weeks since I saw Richard Linklater’s newest film, Boyhood. While the delay in my review is most evidently due to being inundated with uni and study, I also think that there is a much more profound reason for needing to put my worded response on the back burner. The film’s closeness to my lived-experience, and undoubtedly most people my age’s childhood experience, elicited a reaction that was as stirring as it was fraught. Coming back from the cinema on the tram, I began to unearth my own memories of growing up in the modern world. Vivid recollections of Brittany Spears, September 11, and Harry Potter jumped out at me like eager children vying for attention, and the impromptu visit to the past rendered me in a daze. Something even more curious was that the closer attention I paid to these memories, the more they melded in with the scenes from Boyhood. Was it I who had a conversation with my dad about the importance of condoms, or was it Samantha? Did I wear that purple halter neck top one New Year’s, or was that just part of the costume design? Where my memories ended and the film’s stories began I wasn’t sure, as if Linklater was inscribing his narrative onto my conception of self. So many scenes in the film excavated memories from my own childhood in a welcome resurgence. I was reliving the awkward teenage years where you didn’t know what to do with your fringe, or you spoke to the other sex as if the words in your mouth didn’t quite fit.
Usually one for blurting out my opinions with the sort of haste that makes them premature, this film stopped me in my tracks and in many ways left me speechless.
That is, until now.
Richard Linklater is a self-taught writer and director whose early films became an integral part of the independent film renaissance of the 1990s. His originality and unique mode of delivery that set him apart in his formative years as a director continues to inspire his more recent films.
Boyhood showcases Linklater’s fascination with exploring experiences and issues specific to one generation. Entrenched within the expansive Texan landscape in the 90s and 2000s, Boyhood is a compelling portrayal of a young boy’s pilgrimage into manhood. The fact that the film was shot incrementally and with the same actors over a 12-year period offers the audience the rare privilege to see children (and adults) grow up. Much like life itself, Boyhood is made up of a collection of small and seemingly arbitrary moments that knot together to produce an astoundingly candid portrayal of what it means to grow up in contemporaneity.
The film’s narrative follows the early life of protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as he encounters a range of modern speed bumps on his journey into adolescence. Linklater began filming Boyhood in the early 90s when Coltrane’s age matched Mason’s, blurring the line that separates actor from character. In many cases throughout this film it seems as though there is no line at all. Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei Linklater, and friend, Ethan Hawke, play Mason’s sister and father. The story progression is thus a unique collaboration of Linklater’s directorial vision with the evolution of the actor’s personal lives. If Coltrane decides to paint his nails black or pierce his ears, then Mason as a character must follow suit. The actors are not required to work around the script, but conversely, the script works around the actors.
Before I go any further I should point out one key aspect of Boyhood that inspired my specific personal pull to the film. Mason reminded me of my younger 17 year-old brother, Nick, in ways that went beyond physical appearance. Especially as Mason grew older, the nuances of the character drew such strong similarity to those I’d seen in Nick that I felt I was getting a vivid insight into his way of viewing the world. Making things even stranger, a friend said to me after the film that Mason looked like a male version of me, and that he is what she’d imagine my brother to look like. She has never met Nick. So there’s a little side note as to why I suppose Boyhood holds some real relevance for me personally. There was a familiarity that struck a deep chord.
More broadly, Boyhood explores the difficulties inherent in the modern world; increased divorce rate, unconventional family structures and overall instability, especially for children. One thing I liked most about the film was the way it represented children and teenagers. Where their perspectives would otherwise be shafted as too naïve or insignificant, Boyhood celebrates children’s seemingly innate sense of fairness and justice, and represents their special insights as something we could all learn from. It is often the adults who exhibit the poor decision-making, falling to into the traps of neglect or alcohol abuse, and looking back to their children for a sense of grounding. While the dialogue at times seemed slightly over-scripted, this was overcome with the rawness of the child actors. There is a scene where Mason Senior lectures Samantha about contraception and her reaction is brutally familiar and convincing.
Richard Linklater is a director who has true skill in depicting the real. In a world where overly cosmeticized actors are the norm, seeing something authentic is like a breath of fresh air. After the film one of my friends even commented on the fact that it was refreshing to see bare-faced actors and almost under-stylised hair.
I think you’d struggle to find someone who doesn’t say this film resonates with them on some level. Hell, Linklater reinvigorates the audience’s hunger for life and living. Boyhood shows that life’s multifaceted, complicated, and ever-changing nature is not something to be feared but, rather, something to celebrate and savor. Linklater makes me want to taste each part of life with a new appreciation, for it’s often the smallest things – the simple, seemingly arbitrary conversations, or those moments in time that you’d never think would be etched into your memory – that serve as a source of nostalgia in years to come. The film shows the undulations that occur in life, the sweeping lows and the sprawling highs, articulating exactly why every moment has its purpose in the grand scheme.
And Boyhood is in every way about the grand scheme. It was uplifting without being corny. It intersected humor with morbid existential tenants. It miraculously managed to encompass the complex, intertwined and vast array of conflicts, emotions and events that appear in a life.
And if a film at the cinema can almost dupe you into thinking you’re watching home videos, rousing memories of your own childhood in a sentimental and honest way, then I think it’s fully succeeded as a piece of art. This may just be Linklater’s best yet.