A miracle: a three-hour film that flies by

But considering Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood was 12 years in the making, thank God the kid didn’t turn into a 20-stone slob

12 July 2014

9:00 AM

12 July 2014

9:00 AM


12, Nationwide

Richard Linklater’s observational chronicle, Boyhood, was 12 years in the making and is 166 minutes long — that’s nearly three hours, in real money — and I wasn’t bored for a single moment. Isn’t that miraculous? Have you ever heard the like? Me, who is generally bored at the drop of a hat? Me, who is generally bored before the hat even hits the ground? But those 166 minutes (still nearly three hours, in real money) just flew by, as can happen, when you are utterly engrossed. Who knew?

This is the story of a family, as told through the eyes of a boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), who ages from six to 18, in real time. Here is how it worked: Linklater caught up with Ellar every year, for four or five days of shooting, along with other members of the key cast, amounting to 39 days in all. So everyone, quite literally, ages before us, which is fascinating, in and of itself. We see Ellar’s different hairstyles, from floppy to crew cut, and his perfect childhood skin surrendering to acne and bumfluff and that most terrifying of male adolescent features, the hefty mono-brow. Similarly, we see changes in his sister, Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter), as well as their parents (Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette; both excellent), who thicken and gather wrinkles along with, I should add, substance and maturity. Boyhood is being described as a ‘coming of age’ film but, it made me realise, aren’t we all ‘coming of age’, always? Isn’t becoming a parent also ‘coming of age’, along with, at some point, having to let your children go? And so on?

Naturalistic: Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke as Mason, junior and senior

As the film opens, Mason is that six-year-old, and is being chastised by his mother, Olivia (Arquette), in the car for not concentrating at school. Ellar is an arresting presence from the off, with his steady, green-eyed gaze and air of self-possession, and he remains arresting throughout. Linklater, who is best known for charting the course of a single relationship over a 20-year period in his ‘Before’ trilogy (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight), can’t have known what he was getting, precisely, with Ellar, or what he would get in future years, but maybe it wouldn’t have mattered? If he’d grown up into a 20-stone slob with barbed-wire neck tattoo, it would have still been a film, but a different film? Just putting that out there, is all.

Olivia is a single mom, having separated from their father, Mason Snr (Hawke), who has been absent in Alaska, but has just returned. We don’t know why their marriage broke down exactly, but are given to understand that Mason Snr is a drifter who could not knuckle down to parenthood. Still, he is exciting. He drives a flash classic car. He takes the kids bowling, to football games, to gigs, to fast-food hang-outs and damn their homework. He is one of those weekend dads who is fun in all the ways Olivia can’t afford to be, if she’s to keep the family afloat. But he is not unloving or indifferent. There are many touching scenes, but the one where he discusses the possibility of real-life elves with his son is particularly so.

The years pass and stuff happens because that is what life is: stuff happening. So there are city moves and house moves and new schools and new marriages. Olivia does not have the best taste in men, shall we say (I honestly don’t wish to give more away), and her second marriage is especially gripping. People come and people go, as they do. Sam and Mason move on from a couple of step-siblings, which remains a worry, as every character somehow gets under your skin. (Randy and Mindy, I hope things worked out OK for you.) The years are not demarcated. They segue, but we can track time through physical markers (Ellar’s mono-brow; Arquette’s weight; Hawke’s facial hair and eventual submission to shirt-tucked-in-chinos) as well as cultural ones: queuing for the latest Harry Potter book; discussions about Star Wars; Sam winding up Mason with her Britney Spears impression.

It is all scripted, but the acting is so naturalistic it doesn’t appear so. There are a few clichés — frankly, I don’t need to see any more films in which children listen to their parents rowing from behind a door, or sitting at the top of stairs — but if I have a quibble, and I’m not sure I do (I may just be playing my own devil’s advocate here) it’s that the parents’ journey always seemed more interesting than the boy’s. No, I wasn’t bored for a minute — me, who is usually bored at the drop of a hat! — but whenever the camera strayed from Olivia and Mason Snr for too long, I was anxious for it to return. Has Olivia married again? Is Mason Snr still with the woman whose parents are nice, but are also Jesus-loving gun freaks? But Mason Jnr dating his first girlfriend? Not so much.

This is a film that’s as epic as it is minutely domestic, and reminds us that the banality of the everyday is what makes a life. How it can remind us of this, without being banal itself? Exactly. That is its phenomenal achievement. There will never be another film like it because, now it’s been done, it’s been done, and I would urge you to see it. Time will just fly by. Who knew?

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