Director: Richard Linklater
Writer: Richard Linklater
Stars: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke
Right before my screening of Boyhood at the Sydney Film Festival, Ellar Coltrane and Cathleen Sutherland walked out on stage to briefly introduce the film to the packed State Theatre audience. Sutherland is one of the film’s four producers. The 19-year-old Coltrane is the heart and soul of Boyhood. Coltrane spoke into the microphone and he sounded 19. I didn’t have the greatest seat, but he looked about 19, too. Coltrane and Sutherland disappeared behind the curtain and the film started rolling. Within the film’s first minute, we see a seven-year-old boy sprawled out on his front lawn, gazing at the sky (essentially what you see on the film’s poster). When my mind registered that the boy was Ellar Coltrane—the same 19-year-old I saw in the flesh just moments before—a lump formed in my throat and I realised I was in for something special. The process of human ageing had already been laid bare before my eyes and we were just getting started.
Boyhood is a film that will be talked about for decades. Beginning in 2002, director Richard Linklater filmed the same cast of actors (and, by extension, characters) over a period of 12 years. Logistically and emotionally, that’s a gargantuan undertaking. We meet Mason (Coltrane) as a seven-year-old living with his single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette), and older sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Mason maintains an amicable though stilted relationship with his father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke). We follow Mason from childhood through to adolescence, concluding with his initiation into young adulthood. The film succeeds with its organic narrative. We see a young Mason practising his golf swing with his stepfather—not because golf is an integral component of the film (it isn’t), but because kids often practise things. On that particular day, it happened to be golf. There are no distracting announcements that one year has ended and another one has begun. No gimmicky title cards to be found here, folks. Boyhood was shot entirely on 35mm film to prevent noticeable discrepancies in the quality of digital footage, and to maintain tonal integrity with cinematography. But the film needs to mark time somehow, right? Looking at Mason’s hairstyle is a good place to start. Inevitably, you do notice the physical maturation of all cast members, but the camera does not linger on their faces with close scrutiny to reveal the ravages of age. Just as we do not look in the mirror each day and notice the formation of frown lines, the ageing process in the film manages to be seamless.
Time is also marked with popular music. With a diverse soundtrack ranging from Coldplay’s Yellow, to Soulja Boy’s Crank That, to Gotye’s Somebody That I Used to Know, Linklater understands the emotional power of song—the way a single chord change can conjure up memories that would otherwise remain repressed. We also see objects that exist today as anachronisms, such as an iMac G3 and a 20Q. I was initially disappointed when the camera zoomed in on these items, as I wasn’t expecting such a degree of self-awareness. However, as more of these technological artefacts came into view, my disappointment turned into sweet nostalgia.
With a title of Boyhood, I can understand why some viewers may expect the film to explore its themes through a narrow scope. As the film progresses, however, you realise it is not about growing up as a male. It is about having to grow up, period. Linklater revisits his obsession with time and impermanence that underpinned the incredibly moving Before trilogy. There is a quote from Before Midnight: “Like sunlight...sunset, we appear...we disappear. We are so important to some, but we are just passing through.” While Boyhood does not place as much emphasis on our inevitable demise, it does remind us that time is indifferent to our struggles—that we belong to something bigger than us.
I was intrigued by the audience’s reaction to individual scenes during my screening. On several occasions, people were laughing during scenes which I considered moving. This is a sign of the film’s rich emotional depth. It is important to remember that neither reaction is correct, as the film allows engagement on a deeply personal level. To tell someone they can’t laugh is to invalidate their individual history.
Boyhood is imbued with the rare quality of simultaneously being like every film you’ve ever seen, and being like no film you’ve seen before. The familiarity arises from the simple scenes of domesticity among Mason’s family. We are also confronted with standard coming-of-age fare, such as experimentation with drugs and alcohol and forays into sexual intimacy. Boyhood separates itself from the pack of generic American suburban dramas by not asking for our empathy, but demanding it. I often lament how the blockbusters and epics of Hollywood have been monopolised by the sci-fi, fantasy, and action genres. Regular readers of this blog would know I adore the drama genre, but I know a large proportion of the film-going public does not. If more dramas had the emotional gravitas of Boyhood, I think the genre would be back in vogue. Of course, the film partly achieves its “epic” quality through its 165-minute runtime. While others have complained that this is too long, I was never bored and wouldn’t have cared if it went on longer.
When the film was over and I walked out of the cinema, I felt like hugging everyone I know. I wanted to call up a friend I hadn’t seen in months and ask to catch up over coffee. I wanted to approach a random pretty girl on the street and ask her out on a date because we will both be dead someday and that one act of courage could be the start of something special. I just felt so alive, goddamnit!
In the final scene of Boyhood, a character has an epiphany that people do not seize moments. It’s the other way around. The moments seize us. It reminded me of how difficult it is to define the present. If I say, “This is the present,” the sentence is immediately relegated to the past once I stop talking. The last time a film or television show made me so acutely conscious of my mortality is when I watched the finale of Six Feet Under and Nate Fisher uttered a sentence that has haunted me every day since: “You can’t take a picture of this. It’s already gone."
I just want everyone to see this film. It’s the type of film that can change a life. As someone who saw it at the age of 21, I’m fairly certain it will change mine. Hopefully, you will not remark—like a despondent Olivia realising her life consists of a series of milestones—“I just thought there would be more.”