Richard Linklater’s intimate epic of adolescence, in cinemas today, was twelve years in the making. A review by Indy Datta.
At a key moment in David Yates’s film of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Yates shows us a glimpse of the young Harry, Ron and Hermione in their first year at Hogwarts, by way of a clip from Chris Columbus’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. A decade of diegetic time and a decade of offscreen time collapse together into a heartbeat: the three young adults, multi-millionaire superstars in one world and saviours of humanity in the other stand revealed in one exquisitely moving moment, the kind of poetic capturing of an eternal Now that is uniquely cinematic, as forever and always the three children about to embark on a life-changing adventure in both worlds.
That was six years in the future when Richard Linklater filmed the scenes in which Boyhood’s protagonist Mason (Ellar Coltrane), his sister Samantha (Lorelai Linklater, the director’s daughter) and their friends attend a fancy-dress midnight book launch for Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, and squabble over who gets to dress up as the coolest characters. But the intertextual resonance is inescapable as we watch Mason, and Coltrane, grow into adulthood before our eyes, and know that playing Mason will have formed Coltrane as inescapably as Coltrane’s performance embodies Mason.
Coltrane was just six years old, when Linklater cast him. Every one of the next twelve years, for a few days each year, Linklater and his crew would shoot a short film snapshot of the life of Mason’s family – Mason and Samantha and his separated parents, played by Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. Linklater’s method has always highlighted collaboration with his actors; as time went on, Coltrane’s contribution to the characterisation of Mason became more explicit as he became more capable of collaborating. But equally it’s impossible not to wonder if the Mason/Coltrane who appears by the end of the film, and now on the publicity circuit for the film (recessively charismatic, romantic, artistic – a man of a type that has appeared in many of Linklater’s films) hasn’t also been significantly formed by the scrutiny of his director.
Linklater is clearly rooting for Mason (and presumably Coltrane) to become his own man, and one of Boyhood’s loose narrative strands concerns the attempts of the various men in Mason’s life to mentor him but, inescapably, Linklater appears to have chosen a boy in his own image and moulded him further in that image. The irony is that Linklater’s film, shot on film, is in significant part a lament for the evanescence of memory and identity in the disappearing analogue world. The 17 year old Mason, on a dirty weekend road trip with his first serious girlfriend, delivers a quintessentially Linklaterian riff, that could have been delivered by a character in Slacker or Waking Life, about the dehumanizing effects of outsourcing our personalities to social media, and Boyhood’s old-school, slow-cooked formal qualities would seem to exist in opposition to the performative nature of the self-curated memory stream of the Facebook photo album, a different, less poetic variety of the eternal Now. There’s an unavoidable instance of the observer’s paradox here, although the film is richer rather than poorer for it.
Unless you walk into Boyhood knowing nothing about it, its form imposes itself on the narrative from the very first scenes: there’s an implicit flash-forward built into every frame, like an inverted echo of that Harry Potter flashback, that gently abrades and sensitises the viewer’s own memories. As Mason’s life unspools, and as his feckless but good hearted father trades in his muscle car for a minivan and marries into a conservative Christian family, and as his mother finds herself facing a future alone after she leaves two husbands and then Mason leaves her to go to college, you will see all this coming from that first shot of Mason lying in the yard as Coldplay’s Yellow (the first in a long series of amusingly MOR music choices) chimes and chugs on the soundtrack. Not the details, but that life is coming, and depending on where you are in your own life, that life slips through your hands and is always already gone.