boyhood

Boyhood is certainly the most distinctive film in this year’s Oscar line-up, and in a year which includes Birdman, that really is saying something. In many ways, the two movies are polar opposites. Iñárritu’s film appears to have been shot in a single take, lasting the running time of the movie (although in fact there are numerous hidden cuts). Linklater’s appears to have been (and in fact was) shot over an extended period, lasting the amount of story time covered in the movie. Iñárritu’s film is stylised, surreal and metaphysical. Linklater’s is grounded, mundane and realistic. That they are respectively the most-nominated movie and the favourite for Best Picture says a lot about what a bold slate the Academy has put forward this year, in this category at least.

Before I sat down, I had some misgivings about Boyhood. A feature film cannot hope to sustain interest on the strength of its quirky mode of production, after all, and American coming-of-age sagas are not things which I generally rush to embrace. It’s not as if countless American sit-coms haven’t already given us the experience of watching young actors mature into gawky adolescents dozens of times before. The success or failure of Boyhood will thus rest on how interesting the individual segments are, and how well they cohere into a narrative – not on the fascination I might have with the decade-plus production schedule nor simply murmuring “my haven’t you grown,” each time we skip a few more months.

Strikingly, almost the first thing we see our three central characters doing is moving house. The family (six year old Mason, his mother Olivia and sister Samantha) moves three or four more times over the coming years/minutes and this gives the film a restless quality, always moving forward and rarely looking back. Early on Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) is the most engaging figure – quirky, precocious and funny. But she gradually cedes the film to Mason (Ellar Coltrane) who morphs from saucer-eyed little brother to shy pubescent to rangy, cynical young man while Mom (Patricia Arquette) tries to keep the family together.

Dropped into the mix is absent father Mason Snr (frequent Linklater collaborator Ethan Hawke) who initially seems like a pretty standard-issue deadbeat dad, but as future stepfathers will confirm, actually has a bit more compassion and smarts about him than first appears. Linklater is amazingly adept at picking out items of early-2000s technology which perfectly date the film without any need to explicitly mark the passing of time.

Of course, as the chapters go by, it becomes impossible to entirely forget about the mode of production, but as well as gaining the opportunity to see characters gradually mature and change without a sudden and jarring change in actor or inch-thick prosthetic make-up appliances, the nature of the shoot also dictates how the story will progress. The impossibility of keeping a large cast together means that whenever the Mason family moves, they almost always leave the entire supporting cast behind, never to be seen again. This is disappointing, since the opportunity to reintroduce forgotten characters, now transformed by the passage of time, would provide not only more structure but marvellously truthful moments, inaccessible to other films.

The gradually evolving screenplay also makes it hard for Linklater to plant elements which will pay-off later on, and this manifests itself in part in a reluctance to let the human drama become too dramatic. When Mason and his buddies are messing around with dangerous weapons, or when his step-grandparents give him a shotgun, we already know that there won’t be a fatal accident, because it isn’t that kind of movie. When Olivia’s second husband flings a whiskey glass across the room, it almost feels like a scene cut in from a more conventional melodrama.

The pay-off for this soap opera is all Linklater, however. Following Olivia’s desperate rescue mission to remove her kids from drunken Bill’s sadistic control, Mason complains bitterly about being sent to a new school rather than thanking her for her selfless bravery. And this is one of the things which elevates the movie. As well as most of the individual episodes being interesting enough to sustain the interest (while mundane enough to suit the tone), the issue of point-of-view is fascinating. Arguably, this is Olivia’s movie. Sure, Mason Snr also does some growing up, but mainly it’s the tale of how an aimless single Mom working a dead-end job and bickering with her ex about child support, grows to become a much-loved and well-respected psychology teacher with two grown up kids who adore her and no need for a man to define who she is. But we keep missing bits of this move because we at least mainly see it through Mason’s eyes, and so when she unexpectedly bursts into tears towards the end, we realise that we’ve only been on the edges of this story – and that’s really what childhood is like.

I have to be honest, though, I didn’t fall in love with Boyhood the way a lot of critics did. If you took the events of the film and wrote a novel instead, you’d have little more than a rather thin and uninteresting short story. Mason and his family are just barely individual enough to be interesting. Take away the fascination with watching the cast grow older and you do still end up with something which is frustratingly generic. A less “scorched earth” approach towards plotting might have helped, but as noted I think that may have been inevitable.

What remains however was almost never boring (only when Olivia’s third partner also turns out to be a drunk who is mean to her kids did I feel as if the movie was repeating itself), and so even if this isn’t one of those films I will keep going back to, I am certainly pleased to have seen it and delighted that Linklater and co were able to pull it off.