12 Years A Slave (To Hormones)
There is, as we are always being told, no such thing as bad publicity. This especially applies when you are trying to launch a movie into a crowded marketplace, with the result that hapless PR agencies have the habit of latching onto the slightest irregularity or quirk in a film's production and making it a central plank of their promotional campaign. There are some films which are marketed not on the strength of their stories or creators, but simply on the novelty of the fact that they were made for an especially large or small amount of money, or by an especially small or large group of people – or, indeed, over a particularly long or short period of time.
Falling resoundingly into this lattermost camp is Boyhood, written and directed by Richard Linklater (whom I must confess is one of those much-respected directors none of whose films I can recall seeing). Boyhood is, as it sounds, a coming-of-age drama about a fairly ordinary, perhaps slightly gifted young man living in Texas. What makes it noteworthy and lifts it into the major achievement category is the fact that, as you probably know, Linklater began the project in 2002 and proceeded to film a few minutes every year, retaining the same actors throughout.
Ellar Coltrane plays Mason, the central character, Patricia Arquette his mother, Ethan Hawke his frequently-absent father, Lorelei Linklater his older sister. The story is that… well, when we meet him, he is six years old, and when the film concludes, twelve years later, he is (spoiler alert) eighteen. In between he changes schools and moves house several times, makes and loses friends, discovers his vocation, suffers some unflattering haircuts, has a couple of romances, struggles to cope with his mother's poor taste in partners…
In short, nothing particularly memorable happens, beyond the stuff that makes up the most memorable moments of most people's lives. You might therefore argue that all the attention Boyhood has attracted is a result of its extraordinary filming process rather than any actual significance or quality in the movie itself. On the other hand, it's very difficult to distinguish between the medium and the message in this case – the whole point of making a film this way is to capture the small realities of life, and I suspect the project required a massive degree of flexibility from both the script and the actors (I understand many scenes were semi-improvised, with Coltrane gradually taking on a much greater role as a contributor as he grew older).
Watching it is certainly a unique experience – much as I enjoy a sprawling biographical epic, there's never been anything like watching Coltrane almost imperceptibly age across the course of the film's rather significant running time, just as all the other characters grow older at the same time. Linklater avoids all the usual signposts of the passage of time: there are no Christmases or New Years, only the odd birthday, and he eschews the use of captions to indicate how quickly time is elapsing. The results are somewhat eerie and I did find myself relying on other clues sprinkled across the film to keep track of time.
Boyhood obviously also operates as something of a potted social history of the last decade or so – as Sheryl Crow is eventually replaced by Lady Gaga on the soundtrack, you are reminded of how much things have changed, and there's a weird sort of instant nostalgia in seeing a young Mason queueing for the latest Harry Potter novel on release. There's even a little bit of irony, partly when Obama's first election campaign hits the action (Mason's dad is a true believer), but especially a scene from about 2008 where father and son firmly conclude that making any more Star Wars movies would obviously be a really stupid idea.
The film may be about Mason, but he isn't in every scene, and you could make a strong argument that the film is about his parents just as much as it is him. All the characters inevitably go through some kind of transformation in the course of the film, and the performances of Arquette and Hawke are both superb. One inevitably finds oneself wondering just how they approached their roles – how did they maintain a characterisation so intermittently, over such a long period? But this just opens the door to a dozen such questions – what on earth were the logistics of making this film like? How much did they plan ahead? How much was actually scripted?
Then again, I'm not sure I really want to know, as exploring the reality of Boyhood as a film is surely contrary to the intentions of the film as a piece of art. Most films are studiously artificial in their treatment of time, space, and character, but Boyhood seems to me to be an attempt to reduce the margin between film and reality as much as possible, within a fictional narrative at least. Watching it is an extraordinary and quite moving experience: you really do feel invested in these characters, almost like part of the family, long before the end – which, inevitably, comes at what feels like the least likely and appropriate moment. But that's the point – life goes on, unlike a film. Boyhood is closer to life than virtually any other film I can recall seeing – it may look like it's about nothing, but in reality it contains everything. Very nearly unmissable if you are interested in serious cinema, but I wouldn't necessarily rush to see it. It will probably be a while before the sequel comes out.