Why has no one done this before? That is one of the questions that comes to mind as soon as you hear about how Richard Linklater’s extraordinary family drama was achieved.
Boyhood centres on the life of one Middle American family over a decade or so (roughly between 2002 and 2012). So, whilst it cannot show everything that happens to them, it can take in a span of lived time in a way that hasn’t really been attempted in a fiction like this before. There are some apparent parallels in the documentary world. For example Michael Apted’s famous Seven Up series deals with the complexities of how character develops in relation to social circumstances and how all that links our origins and destinations.

Linklater (Before Midnight) goes at it another way and, in the process, creates totally believable characters whose journeys we can identify with and follow. The acting is crucial to making such a high concept actually work. We don’t want to be merely distracted by the philosophical elements or even the externalities of ageing (actual and ‘achieved by makeup’) or of biographical continuity; although all of these layers are vital to this rich text.

At the centre of the film visually is Mason, who we first meet as a young boy. He is played by striking newcomer Ellar Coltrane who gives a thoughtful performance as ‘himself’ (one wonders how he will ever shake off this unusual a start to an acting career). The film is not just his roman a clef, although in the latter stages when Mason starts dating it has many of those coming of age themes.

The beauty of having such a big canvas to paint on is that Linklater can make it about Mason’s whole family without us ever feeling that he is digressing. There is no ‘plot’ and no neat through-line just messy improvised reality. What we take to be our past, upon which our biographical sense of self is based, is constantly re-construed. As the philosopher once said; life is lived forwards but can only be understood backwards.

Helping Mason find his way in the world are his parents (simply designated by their parental roles and not given character names) played by Ethan Hawke (Predestination) and Patricia Arquette (Fast Food Nation). Hawke has been a long term collaborator of Linklater’s (see for comparison the Before Sunrise / Sunset / Midnight series of ‘philosophical romances’), but Arquette is equally good. Her character (and her person) also ‘ages’ during the run of the film, but in every scene she is totally convincing in her care for Mason and her other kids.

The film won Silver Bear at Berlin but individual acting awards were also in order. The film runs for 2 ¾ hours but, for once, it not only justifies its length but uses it. There is so much more one could say about this film. (One suspects that it will go on being viewed and studied for many years.) Most of all, it is a film that one gets the best out of by being immersed in it. Just like life.


Previewed at Sydney Film Festival, State Theatre on 6 June 2014

Ellar Coltrane
Patricia Arquette
Ethan Hawke
Lorelei Linklater

Richard Linklater

Richard Linklater



165 minutes

September 4, 2014
Boyhood (2014) on IMDb