The passage of time and the examination of characters across decades is clearly something that interests director Richard Linklater. After meeting the characters of Céline and Jesse (Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke) in his romantic amble around Vienna, Before Sunrise (1995), he returned to them again in 2004 and 2013 to further explore both the undulations and immutability of their relationship through fleeting snapshots. Condensing a similar practice into a single feature, his latest film, Boyhood (2014), was shot over a 12-year period to evocatively capture the adolescence of a single youngster from Texas. Warm and intimate in its details, this coming-of-age yarn will likely go down as a modern masterpiece.
Linklater’s premise could well have been gimmicky, rendering this boy’s life a curio, but Linklater has woven something infinitely more textured and refined than that. An epic of indie cinema, it entrances from the first to the very last perfectly judged frame. Opening with Mason (Ellar Coltrane) lying on his back on the grass, watching the clouds go by, the following 166 minutes chart the growth of both character and actor from long-haired moppet to fuzzy-chinned college freshmen. The returns to Mason at regular intervals, each time expanding on the lives of him and his sister (Lorelei Linklater) and their separated parents (Patricia Arquette and Hawke) through highs and lows. Throughout, the drama remains downbeat – content to subtly illustrate them in tender moments and minutiae.
One might expect the nature of the production to yield a disjointed affair given the significant maturing of all involved, let alone the evolving technology and language of the medium. In shooting on 35mm stock, Linklater finds a beautiful and timeless visual consistency that captures the glowing Texan sun as well as the melancholy of departing youth. Equally as staggering is the fact that the narrative and characters are not only coherent but nuanced and frequently moving. The familial ties are sketched with care and Linklater’s habitual insight as well as being leavened by a frequent laugh-out-loud humour. There have been some that have criticised the opening act’s reliance on ancillary characters – such as the first of two drunk step-fathers that Mason must endure – but these serve as more than merely formative experiences. As Mason – and Coltrane – mature into their skin, so they mature into the movie that they are inhabiting.
The opening shot of a boy observing the world around him slowly develops into the commanding central presence with agency and charisma. Boyhood grows only with its protagonist – even the soundtrack blossoms as Mason does. The truly remarkable thing is that when the excellent Arquette bursts into tears at her son’s inaugural steps into manhood, the audience completely empathises. There are pangs of sadness at Mason’s childhood ending, especially when we’ve been privy to the growing pains and broken hearts it customarily involves. Fortunately, Boyhood concludes on a note of such unbridled optimism, Linklater is defying you to leave the auditorium without a grin on your face. Indeed, few will after experiencing this astonishing cinematic treasure.