Boyhood will grow on you

Boyhood (M)
4.5 stars
Ellar Coltrane, Ethan Hawke, Patricia Arquette

Of all the great American auteurs to emerge during the 1990s - among them Alexander Payne, Wes Anderson, Spike Jonze and Paul Thomas Anderson - Richard Linklater is the one most concerned with time, so much so that the ticking of the clock is a major character in many of his movies.

Several of his earliest films unfold over a single night or day (Slacker, Dazed and Confused, SubUrbia); others take place in real time (Tape); while his most famous work, the trilogy Before Sunrise, Before Sunset and Before Midnight, brings together both temporal devices and his passion for capturing life on the wing.

Linklater now takes his determination to examine the impact of time on the bodies and souls of his characters and his actors to a new level with Boyhood, a suburban saga in which he tracks a Texan family over a dozen years. It is so radical in its form and so stunning in its execution, it forces us to consider the arc of our own lives.

Instead of switching his younger cast to match the development of the story, as is familiar in the form, Linklater sticks with the same kids, catching up with them every few years to record their growth spurts, their changes in hairstyle and the shape of their faces and, most significantly, the evolution of their essential selves.

Boyhood has been compared with Michael Apted's legendary 7 Up series but this is not a documentary and is as highly constructed as any fictional feature. However, Linklater astutely adjusted the narrative to chime with the physical, intellectual and emotional changes of the boy of the title, Ellar Coltrane.

During this period Coltrane - who we meet in the movie when he's six years old and living with his sister Samantha (played by Linklater's daughter Lorelei) and separated mother (Patricia Arquette) - grows into a slender, hypersensitive teen who stands apart from the Texas jock culture. So Linklater finessed the storyline to give Coltrane's Mason a passion for literature and photography.

This clever colliding of the reality of his performers and a storyline that strictly avoids melodrama - the changes and the challenges experienced by the family are those of millions of Americans - gives Boyhood a truth that's rare even at a time when documentary realism is de rigueur.

In gently nudging forward his story and allowing time to play a major role we're given an extraordinary perspective on ordinary lives and, most importantly, celebrating their resilience and capacity for reinvention. Little that is earthshaking happens in Boyhood yet the movie gradually takes hold and will not let go.

While Coltrane's Mason is the heart of the story - so much so you want to throw a protective arm around this painfully sensitive youngster as he comes of age in the GFC-racked US - Boyhood is also the story of separated parents and their travails, with Arquette and Ethan Hawke (Mason and Samantha's biological father) transforming and growing even more profoundly than their children.

While Arquette's Olivia toils to raise the kids on her own and tumbles into two ill-judged marriages, Hawke's charismatic Kerouac-type hipster Mason Sr drops in and out of their lives. He eventually settles down nearby, finding a career in insurance and becoming a decent part-time dad and an important influence on the intellectual development of his son.

Indeed, the loveliest part of Boyhood, which is full of scenes that will make you shudder with recognition and make you worry about the fate of the children and their parents and, ultimately lift the heart, involve Hawke talking to his son about life and love and music and politics. These are some of the sweetest, father-son encounters I can recall on film.

Another benefit of the unprecedented length of the production means that Linklater weaves into his narrative a decade or so of American history; both the bigger issues, such as the war in Iraq and the election of Barack Obama, and the pop culture phenomenon, from the music through to a Harry Potter premiere at the local multiplex, in an unforced yet telling manner (it's a long way from the movies that pepper the story with big real-life events and zeitgeisty moments).

By the time the children go off to university (a moment that triggers a heartbreaking outburst from Arquette's Olivia) we've embraced this family as our own and wonder and worry about their destiny, with Linklater leaving things tantalisingly open as Mason sits gazing at the sunset with a like-minded girl he's met on his first day at university and who might just be the one.

Forget the Marvel Universe: here's the sequel - Manhood - that we must have.

The West Australian

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