Everything happens whilst nothing happens –these words are my best attempt to try and summarise and understand Richard Linklater’s twelve-year coming-of-age epic, Boyhood. The 2015 film is largely remembered for its ambitious and unique process: it was revisited every year for twelve years, utilising the same ensemble cast, in the hope of presenting a naturalistic and honest image of adolescence. Though its process is remarkable, for me that is not what makes this feature so special, but rather its intimate and truthful illustration of the everyday.
Mason Jr., portrayed by Ellar Coltrane, is first shown at the age of 6 and then continuously through the film until 18. At irregular intervals, time passes, and we see him and his family moving through the years with no obvious signposting of when and where this is happening. The smooth transitions are often signalled subtly through the soundtrack – Linklater cleverly using the popular music of passing years, which ranges from the opening track of Coldplay’s ‘Yellow’ to Bob Dylan. Partly via the music, Linklater also creates an underlying and fascinating cultural timeline as we see Mason mature – seen in instance such as when Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) imitates Britney Spears through to the grassroots effort of Obama’s 2008 victory. These cultural moments are very much present in the spectacle, yet manage to remain as subtle devices, ensuring that the ambitious film-making process does not become a lazy crutch which character development leans on.
The idea of time passing may seem obvious and logistically present in every film, but Linklater focuses in on it. It almost acts as a sort of character throughout his body of work. In his ‘Before’ trilogy, also starring Hawke and overall spanning even longer than Boyhood, the titles alone: Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight create a timed deadline for the characters to experience each other and forges something for the audience to anticipate. In Boyhood, this character is the ticking clock of adulthood.
Though titled and somewhat focused on the idea of boyhood, the film gives space for a holistic look at the stories surrounding and influencing this boyhood – Linklater himself has said his film could be titled Fatherhood, Motherhood, Sisterhood etc. The depiction of motherhood is particularly striking, shown through the stand-out performance of Patricia Arquette. She is not reduced to an archetypical box of ‘mother’ facilitating her son’s development, but rather given the room to explore her growth. Any allusion of a coming-of -age story ending at an arbitral age such as eighteen is completely demystified.
The coming-of-age tale is not and was not a new one at the time of Boyhood’s release. Adolescence is ever prevalent in film, always resonating due to a universal ‘relatability’ with audiences – whether that be the school politics of ‘The Breakfast Club’ or the portrait of the complex mother-daughter relationship in ‘Lady Bird’. Boyhood certainly achieves that universal resonance, but not by focusing on the objectively momentous landmarks of growing up. Due to its naturalistic tone, it almost feels like we are granted permission by Linklater to veer in on snippets of the characters’ lives. These snippets are not marriages or graduation ceremonies but rather the quieter small moments that weave in and around these big events. Moments such as a note being passed in a classroom or a traumatic haircut incident gradually build up an understanding of the characters’ growth. This understanding brings empathy and care from the viewer – so much so that the ‘landmark’ moments don’t seem so important – we can feel everything happening whilst ‘nothing’ is.
Image: Global Panorama via Flickr