Art & Culture

There are very few films of which you can truthfully say, "i have never seen anything like this before." This is one such film, and it deserves to be very widely seen though sadly I suspect that it won't be, since it is a hard sell. But if you can find the time, I strongly recommend that you go and see it.

Richard Linklater has already staked out a career that could arguably justify a description of him as the most interesting commercial-but-independent film director working today. His three films with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy – Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight  have already charted the course of a relationship over about 20 years. Now he has taken that idea one step further, by telling the story of a boy from his early years as a 6 year old until he leaves home and goes to college.

What's the big deal about that, you ask? Well, whereas this would normally be done by casting different actors in the same roles, Boyhood avoids that easier (but less convincing) option, by using the same actors in all the key roles from start to finish. Mason is played by Ellar Coltrane from childhood, through adolescence up to the age of 18. Ditto his sister, played by director Linklater's daughter Lorelei. The separated parents are played by Rosanna Arquette and Ethan Hawke (inevitably), and we watch the relationship between the four of them, and the other people in their lives, as they change, evolve – or finish.

Just think about the ambition of this project. You are committing twelve years (on and off) to a film, and banking on the children you cast at the beginning, developing as interesting and engaging people, not to mention sticking with the film throughout some of the most challenging years of their life. The potential for disaster (or failure) are enormous, but equally, the payoff when it succeeds (as this most assuredly does) is tremendous.

And this is not just a gimmick of watching children get older. The film has a momentum of easy naturalism of its own. There are relatively few melodramatic events, and even fewer that don't ring true. Arquette's character consistently chooses unsuitable husbands, yet makes a dedicated and devoted mother; and while we hanker for her and Hawke to get back together – as the children inevitably do – this is not that kind of film. It's about people making the best of circumstances that are far from ideal, without being horrendously awful.

Another bonus is that the film, and the main characters, are immensely likeable, precisely because they are all flawed and imperfect. Hawke is excellent as the cool part time dad, who despite his Peter Pan tendencies, is consistently supportive and fun to be with, and makes choices that you can imagine his character making. 

The film doesn't flag up the changes in age and period, apart from the very occasional reference to historical events (Obama's election). We simply slip seamlessly from one stage to another, with just a slight change in Mason's hairstyle to help us register that time has passed. Characters appear, then disappear, just as in real life, while others persist throughout. It all feels very easy and credible, but it must have required a lot of work and patience to achieve that illusion of normality. I have no idea how much is scripted, and how much improvised, and to be honest it doesn't really matter.

So many films abandon all interest in character, plot and relationships for facile melodrama and special effects (yes, Transformers, that's you I'm talking about). Boyhood is nothing but characters and relationship and the unfolding story of shared lives. The reason it probably won't be as successful as it deserves is because it is long, it lacks big star names, and has nothing obvious to use as a selling point. Except that it is extremely good – which should be enough. Shouldn't it?