Every once in a while a film comes along that does something completely and utterly unique, something which may have influences but none with such immediacy and impact. Boyhood is one of those films – shot over twelve years, it chronicles the life of a six-year-old boy as he grows to an eighteen-year-old young man, using the same actor for the protagonist throughout. I’m pretty sure this has never been done before, although it does have some antecedents. Francois Truffaut tracked the life of a character across twenty years (the kid from The 400 Blows), but that was using five films, and he didn’t maintain the same level of quality. The British documentary series Up charts an even longer timescale (forty-nine years and counting) but has used eight feature-length TV movies and multiple collaborators to get there. You could argue that Satyajit Ray has covered similar ground too with Pather Panchali and its two sequels, collectively known as The Apu Trilogy, but again that was three films in total. This is the only time I can think of that such an undertaking has been accomplished with a single motion picture, and with a single writer and director.

Said creative force is Richard Linklater, once the slacker extraordinaire of the American independent scene who has now elevated himself to some kind of auteur status. Already deeply respected for his trilogy of films following the same two characters across eighteen years (the completely brilliant Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, all three of which explore similar themes of time passing and actors ageing in front of our eyes), Linklater has been enjoying a steadily consistent output for over twenty years now, from his low-budget origins with the likes of Slacker and the generation-defining Dazed and Confused, to experimental animated features like the groundbreaking Waking Life and the Philip K Dick adaptation A Scanner Darkly, and even more mainstream work like the screen version of the Stephen Belber┬áplay Tape and the Jack Black comedy School of Rock. If there’s a linking theme to all his work, it’s probably an attempt to find something profound in our day-to-day conversations, or even some kind of meaning to our mundane existence (something which, when he’s on form as he is here, he comes to close to achieving).

This is the most ambitious thing he’s done, and the most successful, as we watch not only a young boy grow up (the striking, yet laid-back and immediately likeable Ellar Coltrane), but also his eminently sweet sister (played by the director’s own daughter Lorelei) and both his parents – a wonderful turn from Patricia Arquette as his long-suffering mother and Linklater regular Ethan Hawke as an initially irresponsible father who probably has the most growing up to do out of everyone. We also see the world around them grow up and develop too – the last twelve years of our own lives measured in large-scale global events and smaller, somehow more memorable details like┬áchanging technology. There isn’t a hint of cynicism throughout any of this however (it’s not like TS Eliot, or his character J Alfred Prufrock, measuring out his life in coffee spoons), in fact the film itself sees its characters constantly striving for meaning, and rejecting the sense of an unfulfilled existence.

There is something profound in seeing art imitating life here. You watch a young boy gradually become an adult, being shaped by what happens around him, but you also watch a young actor go through a similar experience, doubtlessly experiencing something along the same lines himself. Just as we touch base with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy every nine years in the “Before” trilogy and see how both they and we have aged, we see ourselves in Boyhood, which is what makes it so special. Perhaps it won’t be as unique as it is for long – unconfirmed rumours persist that Lars Von Trier (who else?) has been shooting a few minutes of Udo Kier every New Year’s Eve for nearly two decades now, with the intention of eventually editing it into a feature film – but for the time being at least we have something extraordinary to marvel at, a transcendent film that stands as a living testament to what the medium is capable of.

BOYHOOD
Doing something completely unique with cinema, over a hundred years into the medium's life9
Making an ordinary life seem extraordinary9
An anti-cynical document of the last twelve years of our lives9
Richard Linklater is now one of the world's best living filmmakers10
Oh and give Patricia Arquette a fucking Oscar, already10
Bechdel Test Passes
  • Features more than one named female character
  • The female characters talk to each other
  • They talk about something other than men
Bechdel Test Failures
  • n/a
9Overall Score

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