[pullquote cite=”” type=”left, right”][amazon text=Amazon&template=carousel&chan=That Film Guy&asin=B00LHTGJZI][/pullquote] As film concepts go, Richard Linklater’s idea for Boyhood is a brilliant one. Filmed between 2002 and 2013 in short bursts each year, it’s the story of Mason, an American kid growing up, following him from pre-school to his first day of college. But instead of getting a different actor to play him at various ages, Linklater recruited Ellar Coltrane as his lead actor, filming for a few weeks every summer, building up a portrait not just of a character changing from childhood to adulthood, but of the actor, Coltrane, too. The same is true for all the actors, but Coltrane is the heart of the film and you feel like you’re on the journey with him from small kid to young man with all the challenges and difficulties he encounters along the way.
We first see Mason aged five, playing with a friend, squabbling with his sister Samantha and generally doing all the sort of things that kids of his age do. Even this early, there seems to be something more thoughtful about Mason than the average child; he’s an introspective, self-contained young lad. A troubled home life is no doubt part of this. His mother (Patricia Arquette) is separated from his dad (Ethan Hawke) and is struggling to pay the bills, keep her kids happy and deal with a succession of (largely unsuitable) boyfriends/husbands.
She’s never less than loving and attentive but the strain often shows. By contrast, Mason’s dad is an easy if occasional presence, turning up in his GTO and taking Mason and Samantha on fun days out. It’s clear neither parent is perfect but they’re trying the best they can.
Moving home every few years has a predictably unsettling effect on Mason who is always having to make new friends. He does so with an impressive sang-froid, growing from a quiet kid into a cool teenager, his changing hairstyles each year the obvious marker of the shift in chronology.
By the time we reach Mason’s graduation from high school and preparations for college, we’ve seen glimpses of all the familiar rites of passage (smoking, drinking, getting into girls) but also seen him endure some tough times – most notably with an alcoholic, abusive stepdad.
Not a film of ‘big moments’, Boyhood is more about the intimate emotions and everyday events that life is actually made up of. It’s a remarkable portrait of a fictional childhood but also, inevitably, a record of how Ellar Coltrane grows and matures over the years. We know the story is fictional but there is a ring of truth and authenticity about what we are watching.
Of course, we also see the familiar faces of Hollywood actors Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke ageing during the film too, intriguing in itself, and both are on fine form, especially Hawke (a Linklater regular) who matures from a slacker to a responsible parent somewhat belatedly.
Boyhood has been compared to time-lapse photography, but it goes far deeper than merely charting Mason’s physical changes. It’s a moving portrait of modern America, of ordinary people, of family life with all its complications, anxieties and changes over time.