Richard Linklater directs a story of childhood, in real-time. We follow the ordinary dramas of a kid called Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) over a 12-year period.

 

4.5
A glorious look at growing up, getting by.

SYDNEY FILM FESTIVAL: Last year, filmmaker Richard Linklater accepted an award in celebration of the 20th anniversary of his 1993 masterpiece, Dazed and Confused. This must have been a sweet moment for Linklater, as the film, an energetic celebration of teen rambunctiousness and the inevitable pleasures of hanging out on a hot summer night after school, was a box office bomb. Still, for its fans, Dazed and Confused, a quasi bio of the director’s teen life in Texas in the mid-‘70s, is one of the great moments of the American cinema of the ‘90s. In many ways, it sums up what’s best about the director, much more than his pop hits like the Before Sunrise trilogy or School of Rock. Linklater explained that evening that Dazed and Confused could be the anti-John Hughes Pretty in Pink/Breakfast Club yak-athon, an angst free zone. Linklater didn’t remember his teen years as being dramatic. Whether to get Aerosmith tickets was, however, a big deal. And looking for stuff to do while listening to the music up loud in your pal’s brother’s borrowed muscle car was cool, too.

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That’s Linklater’s screen world at its best: a place to hang, share a few thoughts, take in the sights in all their beauty and wonder aloud where all that time went and never care too much for regrets but nevertheless take a few moments to reflect on who you are and what that means, and what you know and who you love.

Boyhood is a return to this mood and milieu. It’s more ambitious, even daring. But is so in its own typically low-key Linklater way. As the title makes plain, it’s about growing up. Still, this is a film of growing pains that never quite develop into festering wounds. Linklater here is full of optimism, as always, but he remains a doggedly unsentimental realist. Life isn’t easy, once you get your arse kicked, he seems to say, but you can always find a way to ease the pain.

Boyhood is a kind of film/thought experiment that started over a decade ago when Linklater decided he wanted to make a movie about childhood but didn’t want to do it in the conventional way – with different actors playing the key roles over the course of the narrative. He says there was no formal script. Linklater found a cast, including old friend and collaborator Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette to play the mum and dad and a local kid, Ellar Coltrane, as the boy, and they all stuck with Linklater and the movie for 12 years (and it all appears perfectly seamless.) It took 39 days in all to make, and Coltrane was 7 when he started and 19 when they wrapped, and the film was barely ready for its Sundance debut last January.

Watch our interview with Ellar Coltrane and 'Boyhood' producer Cathleen Sutherland

In the end, Boyhood runs two hours and forty minutes and I have to say, I loved every single frame of it. I’m not arguing that it is perfect or even especially profound. Only that its pleasures are real and deep and I reckon they will last and grow like the best friendships do. That beats the hell out of any lofty abstract one may urge to mobilise in order to smother this movie’s wonderfulness. You can hear and feel Linklater’s directorial authority loud and clear in every shot. It’s kind, warm, gentle, curious, funny and unfailingly honest and generous, and unashamed to be anti-flash and utterly straightforward. It’s a film of episodes and moments and delicious talk. (Self-awareness is a birth right in this director’s world.)

Linklater remains scornful of those organising principles of drama we take for granted as ‘must haves’. There’s no goal set up for Mason (Coltrane) as a little kid for him to reach as a graduate, there’s no psychological plot for him to reform, no ambition for him to realise. Life happens to Mason and the film finds its fascination in watching how he absorbs the blows of it and discovers the highs. Still, it’s a busy film. Mason’s family moves around a lot. There are new schools, bullies, girlfriends, teachers who want to be mentors, and dead-end jobs. There is more than one divorce, two step dads, a step mum and step grand parents, alcoholism, fights, Harry Potter day, leaving home for good and the first day in college. This is, in other words, every soap, high and low, you’ve seen or hope to avoid but with one huge difference, at least for this writer: I cared. I was invested. I fretted that Mason would turn into a creep or that his big sister, Samantha (the lovely Lorelei Linklater), would find a reason to keep her distance instead of remain a rock for him and waited for Mason Snr. (Hawke) to grow up and be a real dad, and I hoped that Olivia (Arquette) might find true love. Linklater doesn’t sign-post each transition with titles or flash technique. We’re dropped into the action like an annual holiday visit and we’ve got to adjust quickly to the new haircut, and surroundings, and fresh relationships. Linklater’s way of telling us how things are between people with just a single shot and an averted gaze is cinema style at its best – and this from a director who is supposed to be ‘style-free!’

But what is best about Boyhood are those little human beats; like Samantha, aged 8 years, tormenting Mason with a bump and grind song and dance routine or the bewildered look of comic terror on Mason’s face when he accepts a shotgun for his 16th birthday from his born-again granddad.

Critics tend to graft grand themes onto Linklater. Still, I’m not certain that Boyhood is about ‘time’ or ‘nature vs. nurture’ or how some one grows into a non-conformist. But it’s certainly fabulous at capturing those hard to define feelings to do with belonging, participating, and just, well, being in the moment.


 

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Friday 3 February, 8.40pm
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 M
United States, 2014

Boyhood

 

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