With the new year approaching, we celebrate our films of 2014. Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is up.
Recently, the coming-of-age formula in American cinema has become synonymous with romantic comedy/drama; they centre on a boy or a girl’s first love/crush and it makes for an easy motif to convey adolescent sexual awakening. Other coming-of-age tales that subvert this go for extremes, rather fitting given the emotional nightmare that is puberty, but I digress. What I’m saying here is that Richard Linklater’s Boyhood refreshingly discards this tiresome method of conveying adolescence in cinema and simply tells a story of a family growing and aging over an 12 year period.
The technical mastery in crafting a singular narrative arc out of 12 years of filming highlights how gifted Linklater is as a storyteller
The film’s technical mastery is the elephant in the room, so it is only fitting to begin addressing it now. The financial risk Linklater must have taken to shoot this intermittently over the decade, as well, is notable. More impressive is Linklater’s ability to maintain a throughline in the film, both despite the editing process and the rapid change in film technology the 2000s experienced. Overall, the technical mastery alone in crafting a singular narrative story arc out of 12 years of filming highlights how gifted Linklater is as a storyteller.
The title places emphasis on the boy in this film, Mason Jr (Ellar Coltrane), but it does not shy away from the other members of his immediate family members, including his sister Samantha (portrayed by Linklater’s daughter Lorelei), their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and their father Mason Sr (Ethan Hawke). All are given space to voice their concerns and share their joys.
Samantha is the first to get into a relationship, Olivia goes back to college and Mason Sr tries to balance parenthood and his bachelor lifestyle. While Mason Jr takes precedent over the others in the narrative, the film does give the other characters depth and dimensions. It means the film transcends the coming-of-age story and becomes a story about a family evolving and maturing.
We, the audience, are seeing the attitude of 2004 replayed back to us without direct retrospection
The depiction of parents trying to talk to their children about mature subject matters, as well as the existential nonsense teenagers spout, are alike intimately drawn in the solid naturalistic performances. These, I suspect, were supported by the naturalistic script, the intimate camera shots and the usage of natural ambient sounds over non-diegetic music. The family dynamic works with the flawed characters, making sense of everything.
On a significantly intellectually and philosophically deeper level, the film is lent a sense of time and immediacy; we, the audience, are seeing the attitude of 2004 replayed back to us without direct retrospection. I would further argue there is some anthropological significance and some cultural studies that can be at play here. Alongside the pop culture references (ie the use of Crank That by Soulja Boy), the environment can tell us much about early 21st century America.
The house-sizes morph and change, coinciding with the sub-prime mortgage and easy-money culture of the early-mid 2000s. Olivia’s houses morph and change in size, as they continues to grow until 2009 when she completes her course and begins to teach psychology. Mason Sr’s easy money bachelor lifestyle can be read as a reflection on Generation Xers unwilling to find themselves a steady job/career, which he doesn’t appear to until later in the decade. This is a sociocultural trait as well as a character one. These, among many other facets, upon repeated viewings emphasise that this film is a time capsule, as an honest depiction of early 21st century America.
The characters age on screen and one is able to view the true power of time passing in the cinematic image
The parents’ liberal attitude to politics and parenthood is refreshing with an honesty that is seldom seen in cinema – their relaxed attitudes are complimentary as well as detrimental. The children’s learning and understanding has a deeply philosophical edge. The characters age on screen and one is able to view the true power of time passing in the cinematic image. This is why Boyhood is the film of the year: it offers an honest, epic view of maturity through adolescence. It’s an artefact of 21st century American culture.
All images: IFC Films