Director: Richard Linklater
Cast: Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette
Watch Boyhood online in the UK: Netflix UK / TalkTalk TV / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / iTunes / Rakuten TV / Google Play
My nephew has never seen me cry.
That’s the thought that struck me while watching Boyhood. Of course, he’s not meant to: I’m the cool uncle, I’m the invincible adult, it’s my job to look after him when he’s upset. The moment he sees me break down into tears, our relationship will change forever. In a small way, but one that’s irreversible nonetheless.
That moment happens to Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his Mum (a magnificent Patricia Arquette) near the end of Richard Linklater’s film, as he prepares to leave for university. And yet it’s one of hundreds of moments that make up his journey (and ours) from child to grown-up: tons of tiny changes that you never notice happening to you, until you sit down and watch them happen to someone else.
I wish I could explain that simple revelation to my nephew, that I could get him to sit down with me and watch Boyhood now – and then again in five years, so he understands what I mean. But he’s nine. He loves Minecraft more than three-hour movies. And he won’t be able to see it for another six years, at least. And even then, the chances are that he’ll be too busy doing teenagery things to care. It takes time to step back and appreciate the scale of things; 12 years, in the case of Boyhood, which Linklater shot bit by bit with the same group of actors over that mind-boggling period.
But there’s something unspeakably wonderful about the fact that if my nephew were to watch the film now, he would have a different reaction to it than at any other point. Because Boyhood isn’t just about a boy’s life: it’s about how life is experienced by everyone around us, from Mason’s sister, Sam (Lorelei Linklater), to his mum and even his Redneck granddad, who gives him a loaded shotgun for his birthday.
As we all grow up, every step we take, every move we make, affects who we are – even if that means we’re someone who references Sting in the middle of a film review. Likewise, every single character in Boyhood develops over the course of the production’s lifespan. New boyfriends seem nice, until the prospect of domestic abuse rears it head (something only glimpsed by us, as we follow events from Mason’s uncomprehending perspective). Even the incidental extras who appear in the background have their own lives. Take Ernesto, a gardener in one early scene, who turns up years later working in a restaurant having gone to night college.
Watching it all now, at the ripe age of 28, I empathise with the uncertainty of a young man finding out who he is as he enters the real world. I see my five-year-old nephew in young Mason’s smart alec replies to everything his mum tells him to do. Most of all, I identify with Ethan Hawke’s Dad, who begins Boyhood as immature as his own child, only to become the father he should have been a decade too late.
“I’ve been through the same thing,” he offers to Mason, during one serious conversation about relationships, only to be rebuffed by the arrogant youth. Watching his son’s life unfold from the sidelines, he’s going through the same process we are – whether it’s break-ups or bad first days at school, we all share that personal response of having been through the same thing.
That truth stretches all the way through the project, even to the soundtrack, a playlist that takes you through your own cultural history, starting with the release of Coldplay’s Yellow in 2000. Would my nephew know any of these songs? They’d probably mean nothing to him. But after 12 years of eavesdropping on these people’s existence, it’s humanly impossible not to become emotionally invested. When we see teenage Kat fall out with her brother, that’s the same girl we saw minutes earlier singing Britney Spears in the siblings’ shared bedroom as kids. (With their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it growth condensed into a couple of hours, it’s no wonder to us, even the non-parents, that her mum is sad to see them leave the nest.)
That investment builds to a final hour and a half of similar emotional pay-offs, as every moment from earlier spawns another later on. Directed by Linklater with the same unobtrusive style as the Before Sunrise trilogy, and performed effortlessly by the natural cast, watching Boyhood is less like watching a film, and more like watching life itself.
So, what does it all mean? “I sure as shit don’t know,” admits Hawke’s dad. “Neither does anyone else. We’re all just winging it. The important thing is you’re feeling stuff.”
Boyhood ends as Mason becomes a man, as his mum hands over the mantle of mature responsibility to her daughter – the newly mature adults ready to start the cycle all over again with their own families. That universality gives Boyhood a timeless quality that’s all its own: it’s a story that never ends.
When was the last time you identified so strongly – and so personally – with a film? And when was the last time you could say that anyone else watching it with you did too?
Unique, ambitious and astonishingly moving, Boyhood is a phenomenal achievement of filmmaking. More than that, though, it’s a chronicle of life across a generation; a whole load of people just winging it. You feel stuff every second.
When I do show the movie to my nephew, however much we may have grown up, he’s guaranteed to see me cry.
Boyhood is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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