'Boyhood': The boy that grows up before our very eyes

Sophie Ivan pays tribute to Richard Linklater, the great US filmmaker who, with ‘Boyhood’, has reached a new pinnacle

Richard Linklater is not a name you often hear bandied about in discussions about major film awards contenders. Though the Texan-born filmmaker has been nominated for two Oscars for screenwriting (shared with his co-writer, Kim Krizan, and stars, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke for Before Sunset in 2004, and again with Delpy and Hawke for last year’s Before Midnight), he has never been a real front-runner, or ever received a Best Director nomination; nor have his films scooped any top prizes at major international festivals. And while he’s had some popular successes in his 29-year career – including 2003 box-office smash School of Rock and cult classic Dazed and Confused – he’s not exactly what you’d call a household name.

Perhaps this is in part because his films usually lack an obvious wow factor – whether that’s epic, tear-jerking storylines that attract Oscar-voters, or “challenging” subject matter to inflame the art-house circuit. Instead, Linklater makes quietly distinctive, smart but mostly accessible films that don’t usually yield their ripest fruit on first viewing. While this slow-burn quality is perhaps Linklater’s greatest strength and distinguishing feature, it also accounts, in part, for his being largely overlooked as one of the most significant American film-makers of the past 30 years. His latest film Boyhood, however, will be a tough one for the Academy to ignore. 

Many of Linklater’s films take a universal experience – falling in love, finishing school, settling down – and present it with a loose, freewheeling naturalism. It’s often as though he’s taken Hitchcock’s famous dictum, “drama is life with the dull bits cut out”, and turned it squarely on its head, revelling in the “dull” bits, and, more often than not, surgically removing anything we’d consider “drama” in its purest sense, i.e. action. Yet the films themselves are far from dull; rather, they possess an extraordinary sense of familiarity.

And none more so than Boyhood: a technical and narrative marathon, shot over 12 years between 2002 and 2013 at more or less yearly intervals, it traces the evolution of an American everyboy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from the age of six to 18, alongside that of his family, including estranged parents Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke. To call Boyhood a risky proposition would be an understatement. Linklater took an inevitable gamble on the future acting abilities of Coltrane as his growing child lead, and none of the cast, including Arquette and Linklater regular Hawke, were bound by contracts, only a good-faith understanding that they would continue year after year on a film that not even Linklater was convinced would ever see the light of day. Even more remarkably, he managed to secure the long-term backing of US distributor IFC Films for a project that – in its best-case scenario – wouldn’t provide a return on its investment for more than a decade.

Well, the gamble has paid off in spades: Boyhood is a glorious culmination of Linklater’s past work, an epic of the everyday, which encompasses and concentrates some of his previous films’ most distinctive qualities. As with the Before ... films, which revisit protagonists Jesse (Ethan Hawke) and Céline (Julie Delpy) at nine-year intervals in their relationship, there’s nothing particularly remarkable about Mason’s story or his upbringing – and this is exactly Linklater’s point.

Indeed, he skips over the births, marriages and deaths and concentrates on the moments in between: the sibling squabbles in the back of the car, snatched school-morning breakfasts, parental arguments eavesdropped through cracks in doorways; in other words, the real stuff of childhood and adolescence. The situations created by Linklater (left)  are deliberately generic, even nondescript, in order that they might hold up a mirror to our own lives. Paradoxically, their very non-descriptness is what makes them seem so personal. As an ex-colleague who I bumped into after a screening said of the film: “It’s like watching my own home movies.” You and me both, I thought. 

American filmmaker Richard Linklater

Linklater isn’t unique in revisiting his subjects at intervals of years, of course – it’s an approach famously pioneered by Michael Apted’s Up documentary series, alongside Truffaut, whose fictional alter-ego, Antoine Doinel, is played by Jean-Pierre Léaud in five films shot between 1959 and 1979, and used more recently in Michael Winterbottom’s Everyday, which was filmed over five-years. Yet none of them manage to compress such a vast time-span into one feature-length film, nor achieve the same poignancy or melancholic resonance as Boyhood.

This is in part because Linklater has made a life’s work of his preoccupation with time and its passing. His very first feature, 1988’s It’s Impossible to Learn to Plow by Reading Books, is a Super 8 exercise in letting time do its thing, which shows its protagonist simply going about his business: catching a train, reading the paper, doing his laundry. It’s easy to see how this led to his next film, Slacker, another near real-time ramble through the day of a bunch of aimless, jobless stoners and conspiracy theorists. Of his subsequent works, Dazed and Confused, Before Sunrise, SubUrbia and Before Midnight all observe a strict classical unity, taking place in a 24-hour period, while Tape and Before Sunset play out in actual real-time.

A new documentary, Venice prizewinner Double Play, explores the friendship between Linklater and conceptual US film-maker James Benning. It’s directed by film-maker and critic Gabe Klinger, who says his intention is to highlight how “a lot of what Linklater is doing is actually very experimental”, despite, as he says, “our tendency to compartmentalise the avant-garde and the mainstream”. After all, not only do Linklater’s films consistently work against Hollywood’s prevailing three-act structure, but his characteristically long, sprawling takes, often featuring characters conversing at a pace, add to a sense of unfettered immediacy, not least in the Before trilogy.

Ellar Coltrane as a young Mason with screen sister, Lorelei Linklater

Linklater’s particular brilliance lies in the way he manages to be immediate and reflective all at once. Like their creator, his characters are consistently concerned with the passage of time and ageing, and so, duly, are we, his audience. Indeed, no other films seem as geared to provoke different responses at different stages of our lives. Klinger remembers first discovering Dazed and Confused’s heady portrait of American youth in his early teens: “We put it on at parties and it would be playing in the background …. It’s like the people in the movie were our friends”; whereas he says it now “surprises me how it’s a movie about nothing, and that’s a very daring thing for a Hollywood movie to be doing”.

Meanwhile, those who have aged in line with Delpy and Hawke’s Before trilogy couple, Jesse and Céline, might well recognise themselves in the pair’s latest incarnation in Before Midnight, in which youthful idealism and spontaneity have given way to humdrum domesticity and middle-aged predictability; they equally might find themselves reaching for the first two films as time-travelling comfort blankets.

The beauty of Boyhood, though, and what makes it a career pinnacle for Linklater, is not (despite its title) that it encapsulates one particular phase of life but that it captures how they all bleed into one another, as imperceptibly and organically as in reality. “Time-lapse photography of a human being,” is how its star Hawke has described it, and in many ways it’s more like a nature documentary than any work of cinematic fiction. And as with an Attenborough adventure, you should prepare to be awestruck.]

‘Boyhood’ is out on 11 July; ‘Double Play’ is available on iTunes, and will be screened in cinemas in July

Arts and Entertainment
Kathy (Sally Lindsay) in Ordinary Lies
tvReview: The seemingly dull Kathy proves her life is anything but a snoozefest
Arts and Entertainment

Listen to his collaboration with Naughty Boy

music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig in a scene from ‘Spectre’, released in the UK on 23 October

film
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap

film
Arts and Entertainment

Poldark review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Katie Brayben is nominated for Best Actress in a Musical for her role as Carole King in Beautiful

film
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

    The masterminds behind the election

    How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
    Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

    Machine Gun America

    The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
    The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

    The ethics of pet food

    Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
    How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

    Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
    11 best bedside tables

    11 best bedside tables

    It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
    Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

    Italy vs England player ratings

    Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
    Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    An underdog's tale of making the most of it

    Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

    Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

    Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat