Apart from being one of the most underrated filmmakers of modern American cinema, Richard Linklater also fashioned himself into sort of a fiction version of Michael Apted. Apted’s Up documentary series has been following the same group of Brits since they were seven years old. He comes out with a new installment every seven years (The last film was 56 Up, released in 2012) as we get to catch up with these random people, find out if any of their dreams became reality, how much their lives have changed, how much they stayed the same.
Linklater follows a similar path, only with his fictional characters. His Before series, a trilogy thus far, follows a day in the lives of two people in love. Each day takes place, and is actually shot, nine years after the last one. This way, not only do we get to observe the evolution of these characters over time, as well as the maturity of the actors who portray them, but we are also able to relate to them in juxtaposition to our own lives. For better or worse, I became a completely different person between when Before Sunrise came out in 1995 and when Before Midnight was released last year. We’ve all grown and changed, just like Celine and Jesse.
With Boyhood, Linklater captures one of the most volatile and confusing times of a person’s life, the childhood and teenage years. Shot over a period of 13 years, the film follows a young Texan boy named Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from his childhood all the way to college age as he has to deal with his divorced parents (Rosanna Arquette and Ethan Hawke), big sister (Lorelei Linklater, Richard’s daughter), school, friends, love interests and the dreaded adolescence.
That’s pretty much it, as far as any description of a traditional plot is concerned. There’s some conflict, mostly during the first act after Arquette’s character marries an abusive alcoholic, but they’re resolved fairly quickly without stretching them out to full blown melodrama. Otherwise, what we get are little snippets from Mason’s life, some of them even seemingly random and unimportant.
The scenes shot across years are edited together seamlessly into a near-three-hour chunk that zips by just like the last thirteen years of your life did. Linklater does not use any visual gimmicks to point out the genius of his brave creative endeavor (After all, he’s not Tarantino) such as title cards that show us which year of the production we’re supposed to be watching.
Instead, he relies on cultural, political and technological references, some of them subtle, some of them obvious. We know we’re in mid-00s when we see the big sister with an iPod Mini because no cool teenager would be caught dead with one in 2010. And of course getting to observe the advancing age of the young protagonists helps a lot.
The praise concerning the technical achievement is definitely deserved. The cinematography by Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly present a simple visual style, letting Linklater focus on the writing and the performances. However, making a 13-year production look like it was shot over a couple of months is an impressive achievement all by itself.
As far as Linklater is concerned, Boyhood is indeed a brave undertaking. What if something tragic happened to any of the principal actors over the 13 years? What if one of them got sick of the process and wanted to quit (Which apparently happened halfway through production with Lorelei, who wanted her character to be killed off)? What if his financial backers changed their minds and decided to bury the project a couple of years in? There were a thousand ways this whole experiment could have crashed and burned, but it prevailed and turned into easily one of his best works.
Many reviews of Boyhood focus on the fact that it set a precedent in film history as a fictional film shot over such a long span of time, which makes it sound like it should be seen only as a film buff novelty.
But apart from the technical selling point, the real reason to seek Boyhood out is in the way Linklater explores these characters with equal parts empathy and voyeurism. Just like the way our own memories work, picking random scenes from our lives as we try to make sense of the whole complex endeavor, we simply enter the memories of a young boy whose instantly relatable confusions, joys and frustrations are presented to us like a bunch of old-fashioned slides spread across an empty room.
To describe individual scenes or performances would be to betray the way Boyhood should be experienced. Like life itself, part of the fun is in its unpredictability.