By now, it’s fairly obvious that Boyhood is a frontrunner for the 2014 Academy Awards. Directed by the ever-inventive Richard Linklater (Before Sunrise, Dazed & Confused, A Scanner Darkly), Boyhood represents his triumph in tapping into something, both personal and universal, that builds upon and goes beyond his previous work.
Over the last two decades, Linklater has explored filmmaking more relentlessly than most of his contemporaries have in twice that period – particularly in relation to time.
A trilogy of his films, Before Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight, revisit a couple (played by Ethan Hawke & Julie Delpy) at nine-year intervals to reveal an insight into that particular life juncture.
Boyhood, which is concerned with growing up (as opposed to growing old, as examined in the trilogy) might even be seen as a prequel to those three films, as it examines the trials of a young boy moving steadily towards adulthood.
Mason and his older sister Sam live with their mother (Arquette). It’s clear that Mason’s parents were too young for parenthood when it arrived, and only their mother has risen to the challenge.
Their father Hawke (who, after eight films together, is De Niro to Linklater’s Scorsese) is an infrequent presence, still very much a child himself. He’s a likeable loser who makes ends meet with odd jobs as he chases his dream of writing and performing music – although crucially, less actively than he lets on.
Nevertheless, both parents play positive roles in forming Mason’s character, and their love for him is never in question.
This is less the case with Arquette’s string of failed relationships; these men, whose largely negative influence is no less formative, serve to illustrate the ways in which, ultimately, she will always put her children first.
Growing up with the cast
There is no doubt that Linklater’s bold decision to shoot with the same cast every year for 12 years has earned Boyhood a curious new audience, and that’s certainly no bad thing.
Thanks to this unique approach, we are able to watch Mason (Coltrane) and his family visibly change as they navigate their way through life. Mason’s transformation is the most dramatic, from the puppy fat and freneticism of a five-year-old to a contemplative, handsome 18 –year-old – and all the gangly awkwardness in-between.
However, it’s not this time-based ‘gimmick’ of form that sets Boyhood apart, it’s the quiet, confident insight with which Linklater cuts deep into the emotional core of his subject.
Hawke and Arquette are perfectly cast in their respective roles, with lead actor Coltrane proving no less a revelation; his intelligent, non-showy performance is soulful and naturalistic – it hardly seems like acting at all.
A culmination of his work?
Ingmar Bergman intended to end his film career with the family epic Fanny & Alexander because he believed it to be the culmination of his life’s work, allowing him to communicate everything he had left to express.
Following Boyhood, a similar statement wouldn’t be out of place coming from Linklater – although, I hope, like Bergman, he will continue to enlighten us for some years yet.
I’ll be surprised if Boyhood wins the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s far too good for that.