Hollywood has spent the last 100 years trying to teach audiences profound truths through narratives on the silver screen. There are strict formulae about heroes/villains, exposition, arcs and third acts that we as audiences have come to expect and absorb. So it is so refreshing when a film comes out that is profound outside of the usual plot clichés.
In the literary world, America prides itself on the Great American Novel – a kind of mythical state-of-the-nation narrative that reflects how America is doing through a snapshot of metaphors and realism. This seems to be what Richard Linklater has done for cinema with Boyhood.
The story follows the childhood and adolescence of Mason Jnr (Ellar Coltrane) as he grows up from a pensive 5-year-old to a brooding 18-year-old college graduate. He lives with his stressed single mum (Patricia Arquette) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), with whom he spends frequent weekends with his dad (Ethan Hawke). The story slowly evolves over 12 years as Mason grows up watching his mother’s tumultuous love life, which leads to them moving house regularly around Texas because of unseemly new partners, and receiving awkward parent advice from his awkward generation-X dad.
Along the way we get to see a collection of rites-of-passages or defining moments that define his young life – feigning illness to skip school, an unwanted haircut that spoils a burgeoning identity, first time he sees his mother cry, a safe sex conversation, his first beer, his first kiss, his first girlfriend… Yet at no time does any of it feel like a moment of plot, it simply plays out episodically as he perpetually grows up.
Amazingly, the film was made over an actual 12-year period so we see the actors actually ageing gradually as the film progresses. The narrative jumps forward by a few months/years periodically, with the length of Mason’s hair as the main indicator of a shift in time. The other two types of chronological signifiers are the pop music that situates the action within an era (beginning with Coldplay and The Hives and ending with Bright Eyes and Arcade Fire), and the politics of the Iraq War and Obama election. It is a tragic statement on American culture that these two phenomena are treated as equally useful methods of reflecting on the first decade of the 21st century…
The playful title of the film seems to reinforce the nostalgic feeling that teenage life, although complicated, is the pinnacle of existence with only anxiety to follow in adult life. All of the adult men – an alcoholic, a conservative war veteran and Mason’s ageing ‘cool dad’ – are suffering variations of identity crises and feel emasculated or insecure. This also applies to Mason’s mother who is at first seen as independent and feisty, but also succumbs to the injustices of adulthood.
My only minor gripe with the film is the focus on masculinity – as the sister Samantha is just as interesting and important to the mood of the film. I understand the editorial reasons for focusing on one character growing up, and seeing as the director (and writer) is male it makes sense to focus on a young boy. Yet I couldn’t help but wonder how different and more radical this film would feel if it was a young woman we were watching grow up through adolescence on screen...
Having said that, there is unlikely to be a film this accomplished and atmospheric for a long time – maybe ever – and is a near perfect reflection of growing up and becoming more confused and cynical about the world around that is presented to you. Anyone who is under 25 should effortlessly relate to the milestones that Mason goes through and the pop culture around him (especially the video games), and everyone over 25 will feel nostalgic for their own childhood and the defining moments that punctuate growing up. Boyhood is a deeply moving film and my first bet for potential Academy Award Best Film for 2015.