28 July 2014

Review: Boyhood (Richard Linklater, Universal, 2014)

A

Boyhood
2014, 164mins, 15
Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater 
Cast includes: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke, Lorelei Linklater
UK Release Date: 18th July 2014

An intimidating amount of great writing has amassed on the subject of Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood”; to the extent that anything I add automatically feels arbitrary. It’s a film which obviously demands more than one viewing, and even then the responses it encourages are so personal that nobody’s perspective or viewpoint really matters other than your own. “Boyhood” is a rare feature that defies the purpose of mainstream criticism, and certainly I doubt anything truly important will be penned on it for some time. Consideration, contemplation and further exposure aren't just advisable, they’re mandatory. As such my few choice words here are simply reactionary, far from a complete or sufficiently thoughtful analysis of the piece. Had Linklater’s experiment been more sensationalised, or bought into its own grandiose designs, it would certainly be easier to dissect and boorishly celebrate. Instead the film-maker opts for something more restrained and deceptively ordinary than I anticipated; a well selected roster of “greatest hits” from the developmental reel of an American adolescent. “Boyhood” never hits a false beat, engulfing you within its subtle medley of identifiable drama over a sweeping 164 minutes.

The film was famously shot over 12-years, Linklater getting his cast together for a few brisk says of principal photography, before undertaking repeated annual leave. As a result the cast age believably before us, not just physically, but as characters. The most dramatic alteration obviously occurs in the form of Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who transitions from 6 to 18 in fewer than three hours. If I was to methodically recount the events “Boyhood” traverses, you might think it all rather unspectacular, after all, little of what happens to Mason hasn't occurred to a thousand other traditional teens. But Linklater plays it all with such restraint and honesty, immersing each portion of the feature in its own distinct era. Every segment feels like a short in its own right, thoughtfully spliced together with the unforced essence and totems of youth sprawled subtly around the sides. What’s shocking is that these fascinating but modest vignettes should transform into such a natural coming of age yarn, ploughing through the years without wasting a single month. Mason’s growth feels real, so much so that it surpasses sound narrative judgement. “Boyhood” doesn't construct an arc, it presents a life. That includes all the flabby details, random images and clich├ęd rites of passage we freely disregard as mundane. But here they aren't. They’re part of a much grander and poignant picture.

Ellar Coltrane’s turn is initially astounding; although as the boy ages he becomes progressively stagier. This slight (but wholly unavoidable) misstep is the only stumbling block of the entire enterprise. Elsewhere nobody slips. As Mason’s parents both Ethan Hawke (probably giving the best turn of his career, although possibly unwittingly) and Patricia Arquette are sophisticated, evidencing hefty recalibrations of their own. Weight is gained, socio-economic fortunes vary, but ultimately both actors are able to override these facile components to deliver truly mesmerizing and complex portraits of responsibility, love and strife. These characters develop before your eyes in unpredictable but honest ways, leading to moments of heartache and happiness. With a slight twist in post, I have no doubt the film would have received just as rapturous a reception under the title “Parenthood”. But alas, Steve Martin cornered that market some time ago. Hawke in particular, shows so much life and involvement in the scenes with his children, his values and priorities upgrading but his love undiminished. It’s a pleasure to see the “Training Day” star provide such complete and earnest work, although again, Linklater’s consistent vision and unwavering editorial hand likely deserve the most praise.

Everything depicted is standard. What works is that it’s all done with such insight and attention to truth, allowing audiences to immediately recollect and bond with the material through their own memories. Every sequence in “Boyhood” is identifiable to an extent. Your reaction will depend entirely on what scenes mean the most personally, which brings me to my central point. The only reaction you should care about is your own, and vice versa. Your opinion on and relationship with the work will mean nothing to anybody else, its power nestled in the familiar and emotionally draining moments it recalls from your own existence. To explain why the film affected me would be indulgent. There are sequences exploring Mason’s friendships, loves and passions that sucker-punched me entirely, eliciting levels of engagement and feeling usually reserved for tangible sensory acts. “Boyhood” is in effect a tremendously choreographed and nuanced photo album, each section offering a new highly tactile point of attachment. Obviously there are scenes that skew broader than others, encouraging remembrance of universally relevant themes, including the uncertainty inherent to both present and future. Yet whilst these moments are executed with admirable maturity, it’s the individual triggers innate to the viewing experience which conjure the greatest reward. Any film that reignites past with explosive immediacy and genuine emotion is a winner. “Boyhood” does this consistently.


The pop-cultural zeitgeist captured is charming, including call-backs to the inception of Coldplay (as depressing a landmark as any), the name-checking of certain important cinematic events (“The Dark Knight” and err…”Pineapple Express”) and the cultural preferences which develop uniquely within every young soul, built upon a firm, almost unanimously adopted adoration of The Beatles. These touches not only help verify the proposed march of time, but also flesh Mason out to the point where’s he’s positively 3D; a breathing, evolving entity with tastes and fears both private and personal. I imagine that Linklater’s ultimate agenda back in 2002 was to make the child both known and unknown, to incur nodding recognition and awed surprise in equal measure. Nobody could have predicted how successful he’d be. 

A Review by Daniel Kelly, 2014


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