A young boy and his family experiences life and change over a twelve-year period.
Regular readers will know that gentle family dramas aren’t generally Fanboy Confidential’s domain; we’re usually about the blockbusters and genre heavy content. Having said that we ARE huge fans of cinema as a medium and are interested in any trailblazing aspects of cinema that push it forward as a medium, be they technological, creative or commercially based.
It is for this reason that Boyhood came with great interest, as its experimental approach to narrative and execution, though largely speculated on as a distinct possibility by filmmakers and viewers alike, was both risky and wholly original. You see, for those out there that don’t already know, Boyhood, a simple story of a boy growing up, was shot with the same cast over a twelve year period, chronicling actual cosmetic changes as well as character development.
Writer/director, Richard Linklater, is no stranger to pushing the boundaries of cinema; along with Sex, Lies and Video Tape’s Steven Soderbergh, he practically fathered the 90s wave of independent cinema with his breakout feature, Slacker, a film that fluidly moved from character to character, voyeuristically encroaching on tiny segments of their day.
He made this glimpses-into-people’s-lives thing a bit of a reoccurring theme in his work, first making the much beloved, Dazed and Confused, a day in the life look at a group of 70s high school students, before embarking on and occasionally returning to his ‘Before’ trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, each separated by nine years), with each film following the course of a prolonged meeting between two near strangers/soul-mates. One suspects this narrative structure was selected less as a statement of directorial style, but more because it proved a convenient placement for Linklater’s penchant for waxing lyrical about life’s grand and minute questions via excessive quantities of dialogue.
Not that this made Linklater a one trick pony; he developed an extensive filmography, with entries as crowd pleasing as the smash hit family film, School of Rock, and as polarising as the rotoscoped, A Scanner Darkly, which, love or hate, is generally considered to be the most accurate adaptation of any of Phillip K. Dick’s novels. But be all this as it may, it seems that consciously or otherwise, having seen peoples lives in the micro, Linklater, all those years ago, decided it was about time he showed us life in the macro, and in no lesser a fashion than roughing out a plot, casting and then filming for just a few days a year, over the course of twelve years.
One can only imagine what a daunting task this must have been from the outset, never mind convincing backers to accept the challenge, after all, what if something would’ve happened to a leading cast member? What if the footage was corrupted along the way? What if one of the child actors grew to be abysmal performers?
Well, went for it they did, with a result of flawed genius.
It’s obvious very early on that the concept was the guiding factor with the characters following a close second and the plot lagging way behind, being that there’s very little in the way of plot to actually follow. On initial viewing at least, this is not a problem at all, the characters accompanied by the sheer curiosity value has you hooked immediately, but be warned, the leaps in time aren’t pre-empted, they’re treated without grandeur as straight and sometimes unexpected cuts, which, to start with, are a little jarring, but as you get into the rhythm of the thing and start recognising the telltale signs of a jump in chronology you really DO start experiencing a life in fast-forward.
Nods to pop cultural elements of dominance for each year the segments were filmed in help secure the timeline in your head, but it’s also just kind of fun to relive those elements with characters that aren’t enjoying them through the eyes of retrospect, but as they actually happen.
All these fun little kinks would be for nothing though if the performances weren’t there. Obviously the child actors are front and centre so it’s gratifying that they hold up their end. The boy, Mason, played Ellar Coltrane, starting at the age of five, is great as a really young kid but gets a little self aware as a teen. Fortunately this actually fits pretty well, considering how most teenagers walk around all self-aware. It’s during these segments though that, naturally, Mason starts question life, going into the tried and tested Linklater realms of waxing lyrical, which, due to familiarity, are the least interesting parts of the film
Mason’s older sister, played by Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei, doesn’t come off quite so well, her performance eventually lacking in conviction, although she is featured much less in the last segments, so it doesn’t interfere too much.
All of the grown-up actors do a fantastic job, most especially the adult leads, Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, reataining a consistency that binds the film as a whole. In fact Hawke’s character arch as the absent father is the most intriguing part of the film, defying expectation and injecting welcome bouts of humour.
At two hours forty-five it IS quite long but to be any shorter may have done a disservice to the subject matter, it skips by at a decent pace, however, and is entertaining to boot, not at all the slog it might seem to be.
Boyhood can’t be said to have anything groundbreaking or original to say about the human condition, and it may not hold up to repeat viewing, so somewhere along the way it’s conceivable that many will accuse it of being nothing but a novelty project, but right now it can unquestionably be considered a true original in narrative based filmmaking, ergo a genuine piece of film history, making it much greater than the sum of its parts. I’d recommend it to all fans of family based drama, but it should be essential viewing to any and all cinephiles.
A+ grade – for originality
A- grade – for acting
B grade – for storytelling
C+ grade – for visuals
Overall grade – B+