Kidulthood, Adulthood, Manhood, Sisterhood, Brotherhood… “Boyhood” is an addition to a veritable hood of hoods, even if, for the purposes of this review, we overlook the Muslim Brotherhood. The film is a striking real time chronicle of a Texan childhood, shot over twelve years under the direction of Richard Linklater. It features the same cast as they grow up and old under the unforgiving stare of the camera, the third party to the tale of their onscreen lives. Quasi-improvised, script reliant, real life ‘dramas’ are the banal bane of television, just take a glance down the transatlantic catalogue of ‘scripted reality’ atrocities and you can see the pitfalls of the genre. Linklater, who gave the world the Before Sunset/Sunrise/Midnight trilogy, has achieved the seemingly impossible in recycling reality and transforming it from trashy telly to a thing of beauty.
The concept is closer to ITV’s Seven Up! than it is to the hedonistic extravagances of say, a Mundane In Chelsea, more of a documentary style approach, than an attempt to ‘Hollywood’ the simple saga of growing up. As an audience, we are enveloped by the world of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through a series of vignettes that, though often short snapshots, combine to form a snug, warm blanket of childhood memory. Linklater guides us from the baby blubber of childhood through the aching adolescent agonies with the unblinking eye of a man at total ease with his material. He allows the characters to breathe within the vast Texan desert landscape, not suffocating their story with any unnecessary directorial embellishment.
The cast are respectable as individuals but resplendent as a whole. As absent Dad, Mason Sr., Ethan Hawke again shows little vanity, offering twelve years of his life to the service of his craft. Meanwhile, single Mum, Olivia, sees Patricia Arquette progress from pout to portly, via a series of lowlife husbands and careerist aspiration all in the service of her children, Mason and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). The parents are the vehicle for existentialism within the film: Mason Snr. memorably answers the age-old question (the meaning of life) with the phlegmatic “I sure as shit dunno…I’m just winging it”. The film’s emotional crescendo, in scenes reminiscent of Toy Story 3, is Olivia, alone, uncomforted, saying “I thought there would be more than this” as Mason flies the nest, bound for Austin’s University of Texas. The children race into new adult life at a frankly indecent rate for the parents. This core four form the bedrock of the film, collecting a cast of characters who orbit the nucleus of the family unit, each offering their own unique appendix to the collective tale. Individuals flit in and out of contact, before vanishing and returning, in harmony with the unpredictable rhythms of life and love that are so familiar. It is not some carousel of characters, but a compelling portrait of real life.
It is the deeper doses of detail that define the film. The way in which Linklater broaches the subject of alcoholism feels like a refreshing new edge to a scourge so often given fleeting attention or even gratification within the upper echelons of the film industry. From the Draper- drenched whisky haze of Mad Men to Scorsese’s Wolf Street wanker, alcohol onscreen is style, not substance. Marco Perello as desperado divorcee Dad, Professor Bill Welbrook, and his descent into inglorious dependency is handled with subtlety and skill: an exploration of degeneration. While Welbrook sinks ever deeper into a self-constructed abyss, the true tragedy lies with his children, Missy and Nick, who lose the company of their step-siblings and are abandoned to the beast of Bill as Olivia takes custody of Mason and Samantha. Linklater deals with the real emotional penance of a patriarchal figure and the abhorrent costs of abuse and alcohol on all those affected.
Then, we move on. A life is solid and settled, then dismantled and those involved never reunited, but replaced as we rifle through the chapters of life, always moving forward in time and place. Linklater never rewinds the film. Yet, testament to his ability, he captures something of the elusive essence of childhood: the paradox of a time that is so endless for the young, but so fleeting for the parent. He captures both angles, enabling the film to resound for every child as much as each parent, without Boyhood becoming an overly contrived, sentimental slice of whimsy.
Nonetheless, the pangs of nostalgia still echo through the fabric of the film. Linklater’s dedication to detail is justified given each audience member’s acute knowledge of our contemporary history. He delivers on instantly recognisable features of the past generation, bringing to vivid light the memories of Potter-mania, granted more focus than other crazes, including the delights of Britney Spears and a nod to the High School Musical halcyon days. These fads and fashions flirt in and out as the delicate, dilettante dabbling waltz of youth dances across screen in a strange, dreamlike fantasy of memory. What could easily form a parade of cultural references, in fact allows Linklater to chart the rapid progress of humanity into the modern age. Boyhood becomes a filmic exploration of an ever changing world; a sociological study staring out at us, the protagonists of its pages.
Mason develops into a typical ‘indie’ outsider, a photographer, with a penchant for deep thought, apparently above and beyond the intellectual capacity of his fellows. Through Mason’s contemplation, Linklater dissects the glossy narcissistic gleam of the Facebook generation to burst the myth of greater interconnectedness and communality. It becomes a far more relevant development of the themes present in Her, but whereas that particular film loses any message through the levity of its romantic comedy status, Boyhood dwells on the topic from Mason’s far more genuine perspective. Using a character drawn from the era in question, rather than some future dystopia, provides a far more satisfying realism to a defining twenty first century debate.
The link with Jonze’s film, Her, is made sonic through the contribution of Arcade Fire to both soundtracks. Musically, Boyhood embraces the cheese, but has a wholesome respect for artists. This ranges from The Hives, whose Hate to Say I Told You So replaces The Undertones’ Teenage Kicks as the sound of youth in revolt, to a car stereo appearance from The Flaming Lips as Mason Sr. imparts his tastes on Mason Jnr: a parental rite of passage. But the major contributor to the work as a whole is Arcade Fire. Their 2010 album, The Suburbs and its screen offshoot, Scenes from the Suburbs, are the companion piece for Boyhood. The band capture the mood and tone of the film with songs such as Suburban War, purifying the image of a Texan childhood through their music. As the credits roll and Arcade Fire’s Win Butler utters “we watched the end of a century, compressed on a tiny screen”, the lyrics to Deep Blue reflect perfectly the film: Boyhood compressed on the big screen.