'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
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
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.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower