Boyhood is the best new film you’re likely to see this year. It is riveting from start to finish and when you walk out of the cinema you feel somehow changed, privileged to have witnessed something extraordinary. Writer/director Richard Linklater’s script and his actors are flawless. Despite filming over a period of 12 years, you cannot see the joins. He has stitched together a piece of life’s rich tapestry and the result is seamless.
We follow the life of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his family in real time between 2000 and 2012. He is six when we first meet him, a doe-eyed dreamer. Older sister Samantha (Linklater’s own daughter, Lorelei) pretends to be Britney Spears and Mum (Patricia Arquette) reads them Harry Potter in bed. She is doing her best to hold things together on her own, having divorced their music-loving slacker Dad (Ethan Hawke), who sees them every other weekend. He explains how he broke up with their mum by asking Mason if he ever gets mad at his sister (‘yes’), then says, ‘you get mad at people. It’s not a big deal.’
After the first of a series of time-lapses, Mum has married her college professor. Unfortunately, things don’t work out. The new stepdad is a disciplinarian with a latent drink problem. As Mason observes later, he is the first of a ‘parade of drunken assholes’ that his Mum shacks up with. Over the years, the family moves house a lot. Mum becomes a teacher. Sam goes to college and Mason becomes a cool teenager and a talented photographer. It is fascinating watching him change, a speeded-up adolescence, with hairstyles to match – ‘girly’, buzzcut, Emo curtain, punky spikes, blond streaks.
The 21st Century careers past, with its politics (Iraq, Obama campaign), technology (Xbox, wii, Skype) and pop songs (‘Yellow’, ‘Crazy’, High School Musical, Lady Gaga).
Beyond this, how does Boyhood hold our attention for two and three-quarter hours? (a similar viewing time to Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings). The answer must be immaculate writing and acting. In its own way, Boyhood is as epic as those blockbusters in its ambition and scope. The BBC’s 7-Up programme pioneered the idea of documenting young lives at seven-year intervals, but no other mainstream filmmaker has attempted a similar fictional project. The logistical obstacles facing Linklater must have been daunting enough, let alone the challenge of creating a coherent result after 12 years’ worth of footage.
Everyone who has gone through adolescence or grown up with brothers and sisters will recognise the film’s truth. There are rites-of-passage scenes that resonate, such as a boys-only garage ‘party’ and the family scenes are beautifully handled.
Boyhood has a ‘rightness’ and purity that makes it special. The performances are natural and unforced. There are no gimmicks or jolting plot twists. There is no pandering to audience expectations. But at the same time the film is never self-indulgent or inaccessible: it is honest, big-hearted and moving.
A six-year old boy and his family grow up in front of our eyes. Life happens to them and art happens up on the big screen. Boyhood is magic. Go and see it.