It often feels as though Richard Linklater is taken for granted. Early features such as Slacker and Dazed And Confused earned him respect, but of a particular kind. A seeming begrudged acceptance that, yes, he’d done quite well for a guy who, really, isn’t the sort who becomes a cinematic auteur. Linklater appeared too easy-going. As if none of this was particularly hard.
His visual style has rarely been elaborate (adventures in rotoscoping for Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly notwithstanding), leaving him few ‘signatures’ in any visual sense. His films tend to be – to borrow a term from another medium – plain-spoken; what normally sets Linklater’s work apart is a sense of everyday truthfulness. It was there capturing youth perfectly in Dazed And Confused, and it is there (albeit through rose-tinted spectacles) in the long sprawling conversations of Jesse and Celine in the Before series. But never has Linklater’s work really felt dynamic or kinetic, because these qualities are not important in the work he has been creating.
But his work has been experimental over the years, usually coming in little waves, and it’s worth noting that the staggeringly ambitious Boyhood began during one of these phases. Work for this picture was gearing up back around the time Linklater was dropping the woozy philosophical dream Waking Life and the less-successful play-in-a-room drama Tape. For Boyhood is one of the most massively impractical projects ever conceived; a coming of age story shot over 12 years, documenting a boy’s adolescence from end to end.
The variables boggle the mind. What if your chosen subject changes his mind after a few years? How do you steadily finance such a project? What if the child actor’s parents decide they want to move him away? What if someone died? There are so many “what if”s to make such an idea seem simply laughable. But Linklater did it. And here it is, as simple and beautiful and as free from pretence as much of his best work.
The title is a little bit misleading, in a sense. Sure the central conceit remains; we following Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) from age 6 up to age 18 and see how he grows up, but he is not the sole focal point of this sprawling film. The project conjures up expectations of some intimate study akin to Malick’s The Tree Of Life, where what it means to be a young man was a significant preoccupation. Here, however, the whole family is subject. So equal time is spent in the company of his sister Sam (played by Linklater’s own daughter Lorelei), his mother (Patricia Arquette) and his every-other-weekend dad Ethan Hawke. Indeed in the early episodes of the film, Linklater seems to favour his own daughter, her larger character occasionally pushing young Coltrane into the corner.
The more the years progress, however, the more the film swerves toward the development of Mason Jr, especially during the later years of high school as he tries to discover who it is he might be. Linklater evidently became confident in giving Coltrane more significant material, and in these later scenes Mason Jr. is prone to the kind of conversational discussions we’ve come to expect from Jesse and Celine while traversing idyllic European locales.
This is Texas, however. Linklater has been a great patron to his home state, and no other film in his catalogue feels more lovingly indebted to its location than Boyhood. This film is as much about what it is like to live in Texas as it is about actually living. Meaning we are treated to some incredible scenery as often as we are grounded in bowling alleys and suburban sprawl. The image conjured is that of casual Western living taking place in some astonishing garden of Eden. As taken for granted as Linklater himself.
With so many years to cover the cliff-noting that takes place here is somewhat inevitable, but what is captured is a feeling akin to a detailed look through someone else’s family photos, recognising in other people key moments not just in our own pasts, but conjured up from other films. Growing up in the UK, I can’t associate personally with an American upbringing, but I feel like I know pieces of it from countless other films. Inevitably, for me, there are still a few cultural hurdles to vault. The sight of children being shown how to use guns, for example, will only ever seem chilling to me.
Linklater dapples the project with cultural references (the soundtrack largely avoids anachronisms, while Halo games, presidential elections and Lady Gaga music videos plot the characters’ movement through the 00’s) but he doesn’t overdo it, nor does he forewarn us of sudden leaps in time. The film simply runs on. Hairstyles change. Coltrane contorts from a short, thoughtful daydreamer into a gangly teenager, encountering out of boredom the things that most of us can associate with.
Because Linklater keeps everything grounded, the occasional dramatic episode can feel awkwardly staged (the alcoholic fallout of Arquette’s second marriage teeters precariously because of this, yet sails by on sheer horrifying uneasiness), but by and large Boyhood achieves a state of simple grace, refreshingly low on contrivance. It balances optimism and world-weariness. As the parents grow older and see the shape of their lives, so we see the children turn their gaze to the world around them; open roads leading out into a world of possibilities. It’s fleetingly as if Linklater has captured a microcosm of humanity perpetuating itself, viewed from the curb of a nameless street in a nameless suburb somewhere in Texas.
Boyhood feels like an immeasurable achievement, one to ponder over for days or weeks to come I’m sure, yet it’s worth noting that this isn’t a landmark feature that’s going to change the way films are made or the way that we approach telling each other our stories. But it’s a lot more than an exceptionally well-produced curio. This time the sheer audacity of the project has placed Linklater himself in the spotlight. He deserves all the credit he’s been getting for this movie, but you know he’ll be back next year with some other project, quietly taken for granted again. Such is the thankless task of giving people the movies they never realised they needed and making it seem so easy.