Boyhood’s memory

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane and Ethan Hawke in Boyhood

MOVIE  l  Boyhood   l  M

It seems again that it is time to learn,
In this untiring, crumbling place of growth
To which, for the time being, I return.
Now plainly in the mirror of my soul
I read that I have looked my last on youth
And little more; for they are not made whole
That reach the age of Christ.

Mirror in February – Thomas Kinsella

Richard Linklater’s Boyhood has been the toast of international film festivals, most recently the Melbourne International Film Festival, since the beginning of the year. Highly anticipated, the formalist experiment at the heart of the project has drawn comparisons in the press to the works of Satyajit Ray, François Truffaut and Michael Apted’s Up series.

While Boyhood is a piece of fictional cinema, Linklater’s choice to film the actors over the course of 12 years has attracted the attention of cinema fans for his blending of narrative storytelling and documentary technique.

Thankfully the final film deserves every plaudit received.

Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, a thoughtful boy whose development into an adult the film follows over the course of the 12 years. Coltrane is supported by Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter, who plays his more outspoken older sister, as well as Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke as the childrens’ divorced parents.

Mason’s childlike confusion at his family’s circumstances, the unfathomable relationship difficulties his parents  have with one another and moving home so that his mother can find work, are perfectly captured in the film’s opening segments. His resentment of his powerlessness is familiar, but Boyhood also demonstrates how the adult world is just as confusing.

Neither Arquette nor Hawke’s characters know where their life is going either. Mason’s mother is desperate to find some stability in order to raise her children, as well as pursue her own career. Meanwhile Mason Snr concentrates on ‘finding himself’, playing in small time bands and becoming involved in activism against the war in Iraq.

As we are privy to Mason’s perspective, we only catch glimpses of these other lives around him. This approach – as well as the subtly suggested time skips to the next year’s filming – creates a compelling sense of a life passing by. Our understanding of film conventions that use narrative shorthand to indicate the transition to adulthood allows us to fill in the blanks for clichéd milestones, such as highschool graduation, or first love. Instead Boyhood presents us with moments in Mason’s life that we are left to interpret the significance of.

Beyond the formalism of Linklater’s approach, this is the film’s chief achievement. Boyhood conjures up a sense of how memory works. Cinema, as a narrative tool, appeals to a concrete sense of time, with fictional works reducing lives to linear, forward-moving sequences. Whereas here memory is undependable and multifarious. To give an example, at one point Mason argues with his father over a forgotten promise to hand down his classic Pontiac car when he comes of age. However, as the audience never witnessed the original conversation, the viewer has no proof as to who is in the right. The scene instead is about the difference in how these characters remember an event.

Arquette’s performance, a single-mother struggling to raise her children, her frustrations, heartbreaks and fierce professional drive, is a tour de force. Her final scene is, in keeping with the overall approach of the director to the material, simple, understated and emotionally fraught. In Boyhood characters reflect on their own lives and find there is no one happy ending, no sense of narrative completion. Instead they continue to deal as best they can with their personal circumstances and the consequences of their decisions.

Coltrane and Lorelei Linklater’s growth from talented child actors to more self-aware performers cleverly parallels the maturing of their characters. By the film’s end Mason has become a photographer interested in how memory works, gazing at photographs of a girlfriend in the wake of a bitter breakup in an effort to recapture the feeling of happier times. Meanwhile we as an audience have witnessed Coltrane’s transformation into an adult over the course of two and half hours.

Boyhood is one of the most interesting films in recent years and easily a contender for the best of 2014. Memory, nostalgia and aging have rarely been captured so skillfully.

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