BOYHOOD is not a masterpiece. And yet it’s probably still worthy of an Oscar in 2014, a pretty patchy year in film overall. Judging by the pattern awards shows so far seem to be following it’s all-but a shoe-in for the top prizes, with only BIRDMAN as an outside favourite. For me, Birdman, THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING and FOXCATCHER are better films, but at least Boyhood is interesting, a feelgood movie, and at least it stands out from the competition, and that might just be enough this year.
The story, as you might expect, follows a boy. Mason (Ellar Coltrane) from age five to eighteen, along with his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), his occasionally present dad (Ethan Hawke) and his loving mother (Patricia Arquette) and her succession of boyfriends of inconsistent quality. We sit in on, and become part of, this family’s life for over a decade, and we witness the impact your upbringing can have on the person you become in adulthood.
The story behind the making of Boyhood has been well documented. It almost became a go-to opening question for interviewers to put to writer-director Richard Linklater – “will your secret passion project ever be finished?” What was Linklater thinking when he decided to cast a young actor and follow his development within a loosely scripted structure for the the next twelve years? It’s one of the most risky and awkward ways possible to make a coherent film. His team even had a contingency plan in place in case Linklater died, now that’s dedication to your art! Amazingly, the end result hasn’t collapsed under its own weight, and works pretty well.
By the project’s very nature, it’s a mass editing process of a mountain of footage, and it becomes a film of moments. We have unexpected moments, moments of beauty, moments of heartbreak, moments of innocence and moments of pathos, all presented organically without any distracting time-stamps beyond passing references to iconic moments of popular culture in the 2000s. All the moments you expect – Mason’s first kiss, his first drugs, an awkward sex talk with Dad – are there. Others you don’t expect – the family uprooting and re-starting life in a new town, Mom’s abusive boyfriends kicking off, Grandpa’s gift to Mason for his 16th birthday of a double-barrelled shotgun – are also there. Everything is well-judged, fluid and totally believable. Well, perhaps not the very Hollywood romantic ending where Mason is literally looking off into the sunset, that was a little on-the-nose.
Much like the British family sitcom OUTNUMBERED, the film is far better when it focuses on Mason as a child, when he’s just behaving like a kid would off-camera and there’s not much structure to the scenes. As Mason grows, the script seems to kick in, Coltrane as Mason begins to make decisions and more obviously to “act” and it all feels much more choreographed, less naturalistic and less effective at drawing you in. Coltrane seems to be a good actor, but I don’t know whether this project alone (he did the odd small part in addition to this, but this is still his breakthrough) gives us enough of a sense of the kind of performer he will become. Thankfully, he has a great supporting cast around him, with Hawke and Arquette providing layer upon layer to their characters, separated parents struggling with very different aspects of parental responsibility. Lorelei Linklater might have got the role of Samantha for reasons of nepotism, but she proves to be a gifted and likable presence, and her love-hate relationship with Mason as the bossy older sister always feels genuine.
You have to ask what Boyhood is actually receiving all these awards statuettes for. Is it being recognised because it’s considered a genuinely superior example of filmmaking than everything else released in 2014? Is the act of revisiting and filming a boy’s life over a decade and constructing a story that flows at the end of it all what is impressing everyone? Is it the achievement, both the artistically singular one for Linklater, and a collective effort from the ensemble that is receiving praise? Has it just struck an emotional chord with enough people? Is it just very lucky to be released in hit-and-miss 2014? We may never know for sure, though if it wins the big prize tonight then I’m sure everyone and their dog will be discussing it. SSP