Richard Linklater, the ever-adventurous filmmaker who for more than two decades has somehow managed to veer successfully between, among others, the rambling and difficult arthouse fare of Slacker and Waking Life, the messy, snapshot romance of the Before Sunrise films, and the ecstatic mainstream comedy of School of Rock, returns with an inspired project that ranks among his very best work.
Boyhood charts the life of a young Texan from six-year-old first-grader to eighteen-year-old college student, and the tumultuous changes to the structure and situation of his family as the years progress. Whilst this plot could not be considered particularly unusual, what is remarkable about Boyhood is that Linklater forsakes the usual cinematic tricks for ageing – from casting multiple actors for one role to the use of transformative makeup and CGI – in favour of filming a single cast in short annual bursts over twelve years. Where once Linklater managed to condense the potency of the coming-of-age story into the events of a single day in Dazed and Confused, here he shapes almost an entire childhood into one feature film. The result is at once brilliantly experimental and highly accessible, a rare and stunning case of patience and foresight in a typically unadventurous industry.
The process of actually observing the growth and development of a person from young boy to man in the space of two and a half hours feels not only incredibly novel but also highly surreal. Both the actor (Ellar Coltrane) and his character (Mason) appear to stretch and contort before our very eyes as Linklater shifts rapidly forward in time. Despite the title, however, the film is not focused simply on Mason, and the experience is just as much about seeing his father (Ethan Hawke), mother (Patricia Arquette), sister (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), and even society change with him.
Boyhood’s concept alone is intriguing, but out of what might have been merely an interesting experiment Linklater has formed a subtle and eerily powerful piece. It is often tempting to use exaggerated terms like ‘revolutionary’, ‘groundbreaking’, or even ‘game-changing’ when describing such strikingly innovative works, but these words suggest that the film in question has forged a new and influential direction for cinema. In truth, how many filmmakers would actually follow Linklater’s lead and devote so much time and effort to a single work? In what ways could this film actually change the cinematic landscape?
It might be wiser to view Boyhood instead as a truly one-of-a-kind experience, and certainly it feels like nothing else before it. Linklater has not redefined his medium, but by testing the conventions and assumptions of an industry that so often favours safety and reliability over invention he has created a true highlight of modern cinema.
Boyhood, directed by Richard Linklater, is released in UK cinemas by Universal Pictures, Certificate 15. Watch the trailer below: