REVIEW – Boyhood: Linklater gives us a rare film treat 12 years in the making

There’s not a lot of originality in Hollywood these days. People applaud the “originality” of The Hunger Games, only to forget Battle Royale came before it. And within a year or two of that “originality”, you’ve got Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Giver… all variations on a theme. Not that we don’t love those stories, but well. Original ideas are refreshing, copies while enjoyable, wear thin.

Boyhood - Linklater, Arquette, and ColtraneWith Boyhood, Richard Linklater (the Before series, Waking Life) has definitely done something truly original and refreshing. Over a 12 year span, Linklater filmed a story of childhood and adolescence, growth and maturity, and family that is unparalleled. He chose an unknown child, 6 year old Ellar Coltrane, to be his Mason, and over 39 filming days that took place over those 12 years (3-4 days per year), gave us a unique perspective on the trials and tribulations of our formative years. Letting the story evolve as he watched the child before him grow, Linklater gives the viewer a uniquely personal look at life and the personal relationships that shape the people we become.

“I was ready for it to be a constant collaboration between the initial ideas I had for the piece and the reality of the changes happening to the actors along the way. In a way, the film became a collaboration with time itself, and time can be a pretty good collaborator, if not always a predictable one,” says Linklater of the experience.

Finding a cast and creative team to produce such a picture is part of the wonder of it. For what studio would be willing to invest $200,000 + per year over more than a decade without a guaranteed return? Well, apparently IFC Films would.

“It was especially insane for IFC Films to commit to this and I know that Jonathan Sehring (President of Sundance Selects/IFC Films] really fought for it,” he says. “He had to explain every year what this expenditure was and why there wasn’t going to be anything to show for it for more years to come. I was lucky to find that, because otherwise this would not have been possible.”

Boyhood - Linklater, Hawke, and ColtraneOnce the finances were in place, it was time to find a cast. Aside from his 6 year old lead, Linklater needed another young actor to play Mason’s older sister, and two adults to play the childrens mother and father. “There was no real precedent for doing this with a cast and crew,” Linklater admits. “There’s no such thing as a 12-year contract in this business. So it was really asking people to take a communal leap of good faith and commitment.”

At the heart of the film was a 6 year old boy. But what 6 year old can fathom how his or her life will change over a 12 year period; twice the span on their lives so far? “It was kind of a crazy task, where I was looking at kids wondering, ‘Who are you going to be when you grow up and what’s your life going to be like?’

“It’s hard enough to contemplate the next 12 years now for me, or probably at any age, but then it wasn’t possible,” says Coltrane. “It wasn’t for several years that it really began to sink in just what the film was or why it was so different.”

Samantha, Mason’s sister, was an easier call, as Linklater’s 9 year old daughter Lorelai was gunning for the part. “She was at that age when she was singing and dancing and being extroverted and at that moment, she really wanted to do it,” he recalls. “It was also a really practical choice because I at least had a little bit of control over her availability.”

For the parents, Linklater looked to longtime collaborator Ethan Hawke as Mason and Samantha’s often absent father, and for their mother he chose Patricia Arquette.

“When Rick called I was so excited just to be part of this. I remember he said ‘What are you doing for the next 12 years?’ – which is really the best sort of come on,” Arquette laughs. “There was no script, and it wasn’t a movie you could easily categorize, but his idea was so amazing, no one had done it before, so I thought I will find a way to make this work in my schedule for the next 12 years some way and somehow. Committing to it was the easiest thing for me.”

Boyhood - Coltrane and LinklaterAnd so filming began. For 12 years they gathered for several days a year when their schedules would allow (sometimes during weekend breaks in filming other projects that didn’t know about Boyhood, as Hawke shyly tells us during a press day here in Los Angeles). With Linklater and his editing partner Sandra Adair working on each years work as they went along, the story was shaped as its cast and creators grew. With the story one year centering on the upheavel of a move, and the next on new relationships. From the early childhood years of Mason’s life being largely about the effects the choices made by the adults in his life have on him, to later in life and his own choices as an adolescent as he became truly his own person.

So was it worth it? What was the result of this 12 year gamble?

A truly engaging and thought provoking film.

A lot of people complain that Linklater’s work tends to be without a plot, but it feels like they miss the point of the work. The stories he tends to tell are about life in general. And I don’t know about you, but I don’t know many lives that have a clearly defined narrative. What’s captivating about Linklater’s work is that he is able to capture a single moment, and to draw from that moment a deeper meaning. To make you look at that single moment, and the effects a single choice can have on ones own existence.

Boyhood - Coltrane and HawkeBoyhood is a series of those moments. What happens when you move away from your childhood home? When your mother meets a new man, who then turns out to be an abusive drunk? Another move, new friends, a new school. Your first sex talk from your dad, which happens to take place in a bowling alley food court. When you grow from worrying about who has the cooler bike, to who is still a virgin? Your first car, first job, first love. Many of these are experiences we all will face, others rarer, but they’re all about the experience of a life, and that’s what Boyhood is all about. We expect the shocks, the horrors, because as a society we’ve learned that’s what you experience in film (in one memorable moment the audience around me actually gasped, thinking a horrible accident was about to happen, but it was just another moment in the life of a child that could have ended badly, but didn’t). But that isn’t the story Linklater wanted to tell because, as he puts it, “most of us actually do survive childhood unscathed.”

Now that I’ve seen and thoroughly enjoyed this film (weeks later I’m still thinking about it), part of me never wants to see this repeated. It’s done, it was original and amazing, time for something new. Only, I can’t help but wonder what “Girlhood” would look like. Show me the growth of a six year old girl to an eighteen year old. Show me the growth in this society of a girl who thinks she can accomplish anything, and the changes that come when society starts to beat her down and tell her that “girls can’t do that”, or the fear that grows as she learns of rape culture. It’s a horrible thought, but it’s reality. Boyhood touches on those same things from the male perspective. In what to me was the most memorable scene of the film, we see Mason struggle to fit in with older boys who talk about all their supposed conquests, and his wish to be accepted and admired. But it’s only a taste, a tease.

It’s the one complaint I have about the film. Though the story is unique and exciting because of it, there are a heck of a lot of stories out there about the childhood of a young boy. But us girls? We’re sadly lacking in choice.

Boyhood opens in select theatres on 11th July.