The Movie which took 12 years in the making
Dir – Richard Linklater
Cast – Ellar Coltrane , Ethan Hawke , Patricia Arquette , Lorelei Linklater.
Year – 2014
Boyhood, the film from Richard Linklater, took 12 years to make. It may well take another 12 years to appreciate fully. Since 2002, just before he began work on School of Rock, the Texan director has been setting aside a few days every year to shoot what might be the biggest small movie ever made: a drama about a boy, Mason, growing up between the ages of six and 18.
The film has been talked about as a quirky side-project, but in its completed form it looks like the achievement of a lifetime. Linklater has shown, perhaps with more heart-piercing acuity than any other director, how a child grows into an adult, because that’s literally what his film depicts. The young actor who plays Mason, Ellar Coltrane, was cast in the project at the age of seven, and returned to the role for those few days every year until shortly after his 19th birthday in 2013.
Over the course of the film, his limbs stretch, his nose and jaw lengthen, and his vocal cords flutter before settling on their adult pitch. The core cast, too, are played by the same actors: Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke are Mason’s divorced parents, and Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, is his elder sister Samantha, who begins the film a precocious eight-year-old girl and ends it a smart, droll, 20-year-old woman.
To describe this as a “coming-of-age” story feels hopelessly inadequate. Linklater is interested not just in age’s coming, but its going too: the way the characters’ maturing faces flicker with the ghosts of their younger selves, while months can be snuffed out like birthday candles in the space of a cut.
Truffaut tried his hand at this with his Antoine Doinel films, which grew unexpectedly from 1959’s The 400 Blows to run for 20 years, as did Linklater himself in his Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight trilogy, in which we drop in on a couple, played by Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, at nine-year intervals.
Michael Apted’s Up documentary series also checks back every seven years with the same group of subjects to see what’s changed. But there’s a subtle, crucial difference: while those films pick over time’s effects, Boyhood is about time itself; the way it slips and darts and evades our grasp.
The growing-up process is, effectively, Boyhood’s plot: Mason’s home life, around which the film ambles, is almost wilfully undramatic. Aside from an early thread in which one of his divorced mother’s suitors (Marco Perella) turns out to be a manipulative alcoholic, the emotional landscape is as low-lying and green as the Texan suburbs, woods and creeks in which the film plays out.
Mason watches his mother fall in and out of love while she studies for a psychology degree, idles away visiting days with his semi-absent father, and endures the full spectrum of creative teasing from his sister. There are baseball games, camping trips and midnight parties for the launch of the latest Harry Potter book.
The meanings of these scenes accrue slowly, like scuffs on shoes. By the film’s end, you realise that what you’ve experienced, more or less, is what each of us amounts to: a string of moments lived through in a perpetually vanishing present.
It’s an astonishing achievement. Linklater and his cast, who helped refine the director’s script, perfectly execute how long it takes us to become the lead characters in our own lives, and how fumblingly the role is first assumed. At first, Mason hangs back at the film’s edges, watching and absorbing, and it’s only when he reaches his teens that he starts to feel at ease in the spotlight.
In one quiet, perfect scene, Mason and a female schoolfriend stroll down a side-street, talking about nothing much, as many Linklater characters have done before them. Slowly, you realise the boy you were watching ten minutes ago would never have dared do this.
Towards the film’s end, as Mason packs for college, his mother suddenly bursts into tears, startled by how quickly life is whipping past. Yet there are ways of holding onto time after it passes: photography, her son’s chosen subject, is one of them. Film making of this extraordinary elegance, wit and beauty is another.