Boyhood pulls off a rare feat. It’s a film that works and really engages despite being based on a gimmick. The gimmick in question is one of those things that must have sounded like a good idea at the time.
Take a couple of children, and a couple of adults, and film them in a handful of scenes once a year, for twelve years.
The more you think about that, the more the whole thing should have fallen flat on its face. The reason that it all works so wonderfully well is because of the way that Richard Linklater makes these kind of films, his personal ones as opposed to the ones he makes for the studio.
As we have seen in what we have to call the Before series, as by now there have been three of them (to date), Sunrise, Sunset and Midnight (reviewed earlier here), he and his actors workshop their scenes exhaustively, in a sort of anti Ken Loach manner. So that instead of being in any way improvised, the films evolve from a script that has been written within an inch of its life.
By the time the actors come to film their scenes, they know their characters and why they are doing what they are doing inside out. And any improvisation comes from the performance, and not thankfully from the story telling.
The main difference between Before and Boyhood isn’t so much the time frame, as it is the focus of attention. In theory at least, as the title suggests, it’s the story of a boy’s journey from seven years old to 19. Which could have been horribly saccharine.
And there’s no question that the film isn’t quite as gut-wrenchingly unforgiving of its characters as Before Midnight was, because Linklater is understandably less inclined to put his child actors through the emotional mill in quite the same way that is he with his adults.
But the reason that the film works so well is because in reality it offers a twin perspective. On the one hand there are the two children, of ordinary parents, and the way in which their lives seem to be imposed upon them from without. Suddenly they are forced to move, and start a new school, and they’ve a new father, and then it’s all over again, and they have to move and start all over, again.
And on the other, there’s a guy and a girl who are finding it hard enough at becoming adults, and now they have to bring up a couple of kids at the same time. And the gap between what they’d hoped their lives would become, and the lives they are being forced to live just to make ends meet, is getting ever wider and increasingly unbridgeable. None of it is anyone’s fault. And yet they all blame each other.
All the performances are stunning. And yes the two kids Ellar Coltrtane and Lorelei Linklater are amazing. But it’s the adults Ethan Hawke and especially Patricia Arquette as the mother that gives this film its substance. The weight of motherhood is all too visible as she literally ages before our eyes.
Richard Linklater is one of the very few serious film makers working today. And Boyhood is another triumph.
Sign up for a subscription right or below, and I shall keep you posted every week on All the Very Best and Worst in Film, Television and Music!