Long hijacked – and cheapened – by the marketing spiel of a multitude of schlocky blockbusters, the true meaning of the word ‘epic’ is hereby reclaimed by this modern masterpiece that’s as grand in its ambition as it is intimate in its emotional spirit.
The most beautifully simple concepts are often the best and the 12-year project that led to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is sublime and unique indeed.
Setting aside the hoo-ha over the film’s time-spanning audaciousness, however, Boyhood must still be judged for what it is – a film. And what a film it is; not just a powerful and enrapturing coming-of-age drama, but also a remarkable portrait of America seen through the eyes of a boy, his sister and estranged parents living through a tumultuous decade.
The film follows the trials and tribulations of Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane) as he matures from a six-year-old boy, through adolescence to the age of 18 as he leaves for college and an independent life. Along the way he experiences love and heartbreak, as well as pure and damaged souls, but the constants in his life remain his older sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Lorelei), single mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and father Mason Snr (Ethan Hawke).
Mason is shaped, like the rest of us by the events and people he experiences and Linklater, rather than inserting titles telling us what year it is, chooses instead to structure the film around cultural touchstones (the war in Iraq, Harry Potter, the 2008 US election) and technological advancements (iPods, Facebook, Wii, smart phones).
This is not just Mason Jnr’s story, though. Olivia’s journey is given as much care and attention and is powerfully realised by Arquette in a career-best turn. Olivia stumbles and falls from one bad relationship to the next, but with each knock down she picks herself up and moves on, discovering first and foremost that happiness must come from within.
Paralyzed by a serious case of arrested development, Mason Snr must first learn what it is to be a father and then an adult. It’s startling at first seeing the fresh-faced Hawke of the early Before… chapters, but as the years wear themself on the actor’s face a gradual evolution takes place in his character. Mason Snr isn’t a bad guy, he’s just a little lost and learns to find his way with the benefit of time.
It’s understandable that Coltrane has described finishing the film as like losing a limb. This is all he has known for a large part of his life and it’s fascinating observing the way he changes, both physically (at one point he visibly ages between heading upstairs one night and coming downstairs in the morning, such is Linklater’s canny editing) and emotionally.
The film is full of beautifully observed moments that stay with you – Mason’s best friend waving goodbye on his bike when the family move to Houston; the look on Mason Snr’s face when he realises his son has become a man; the quiet devastation Olivia feels when Mason is packing to leave for college. All these are bookended by the look of hope, contemplation and wonder Mason gives at the start and end of the film.
The magic that Linklater has found in Boyhood is that these are people we all know. Just as a programme like The Simpsons works on multiple levels and can be appreciated in different ways over the course of time, so to will Boyhood. Personally, I recognised myself both in Mason Jnr as a lad wondering what the world held in store and in Mason Snr through my struggle to accept the limitations life sometimes imposes.
Linklater’s masterpiece is a film that will become regarded as one of the defining pieces of cinema of this decade. To borrow the title of the late Roger Ebert’s autobiography, Boyhood is simply ‘life itself’.