I’m always a little skeptical about a film that relies too much on a gimmick. Can the film stand on its own? That’s what I want to know. I’m happy to say that Boyhood, one of the most anticipated indie films of the century (okay, the century is only 14 years old) can indeed stand on its own. The gimmick is this: instead of using multiple actors or makeup and prosthetics to portray the same character at different ages, director Richard Linklater decided to film this movie over the course of 12 years, while using the same actors. The result is a series of 12 vignettes chronicling the experiences of a sometimes-single mother (Patricia Arquette); her two children, Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and Samantha (Lorelei Linklater); and their father (Ethan Hawke).
Linklater is one of the most innovative directors of the independent film movement. His sprawling, virtually plotless Slacker (1991) gave rise to the term that many used to define a generation. A Scanner Darkly experimented with new techniques that turned live action into animation, while Bernie experimented with combining documentary and scripted narrative. Several of his films take place in one 24-hour period (Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight, to name a few.) So why not experiment with the idea of taking 12 years to film a movie that covers 12 years?
Movie geeks have been waiting eagerly for the release of this film. I saw it on opening night in a gigantic downtown theater that was virtually filled to capacity. I was not disappointed.
Much can happen over the course of 12 years. People change. Sometimes they become famous. Sometimes they fall into addictions or ill health. Sometimes they die. Kids who seem cute and precocious at age five may become dull and leaden actors at age ten or 12. (I suspect the producers of Modern Family have serious “buyers’ regret” over the choice of Aubrey Anderson-Emmons as Lily — but how could they have known when she was a cute little toddler that she would grow up without an ounce of acting ability?)
Linklater could not have known, for example, that last year’s Oscar for Best Picture would go to a film called Twelve Years a Slave, making it necessary for him to change his working title, Twelve Years, to the more generic and certainly less interesting Boyhood, in order to avoid confusion. He also didn’t know that Arquette would end up starring in a hit TV show (Medium) or that his daughter Lorelei would lose interest in the project and beg him to kill off her character (I won’t tell you how that family tiff was resolved). Nor did he anticipate that it would take nearly three hours to tell the story sufficiently. Or that Ellar Coltrane would turn out to be exactly the right actor to stand at the heart of Boyhood.
Like many stories that are told through the eyes of a child (To Kill a Mockingbird and Shane, for example), Boyhood is not a kid’s flick but a grown up story that is given additional poignancy by the innocence of its young protagonist. Mom (Arquette) is a complex character who is trying to create a good life for her children. During the first half of the vignettes she is working her way through college and graduate school. But she makes terrible choices regarding men. Divorced from her children’s father, she goes through a series of abusive relationships and doesn’t seem able to rise above whatever it is that attracts her to this kind of man. The children suffer from her mistakes even as they benefit from her courage to leave a bad relationship. It’s a fascinating character study, and Arquette plays it just right.
The Texas setting is just right, too. Linklater hails from Houston, and he takes his audience on a virtual tour of the state as the family moves from place to place. Some of the locations are absolutely gorgeous.
Boyhood is much more than a filmmakers’ gimmick. The story works, the casting works, and the concept works. The film is long, but it is engaging, believable, and well worth watching. Once again, Linklater has created a winner.