Six years ago, movie audiences took in The Truman Show, an art-imitates-life-imitates-art film about a man who discovers his entire life has been the subject of a long-running television soap opera. In director Peter Weir’s movie, Truman’s typical day ran like clockwork complete with product placement and interwoven, random commercial breaks. Nothing rang true about this man’s life except that it might have played out on a studio back lot in Burbank, California.
That same year, entertainment and media journalist Neal Gabler’s book Life the Movie restated the sentiment from Shakespeare’s As You Like It that “all the world’s a stage.” Each of us is the star of our own little movie, pundit after pundit proclaims, and sooner or later, many of us with no warning experience our own fifteen minutes of fame. Just ask Kato Kaelin of OJ Simpson trial fame.
What, then, could be new about a movie entering cinemas with the deceptively simply title of filmmaker Richard Linklater’s new feature, Boyhood?
Try this: Linklater’s latest offering follows the same cast and same characters over the course of more than a decade. During that span, the story reveals not only the growth and change of the title character, but also that of the actor who portrays him, a six-year-old boy who becomes an 18-year-old young man on screen. Same character. Same actor. 12 years.
“I was trying to make a movie about childhood,” Linklater discloses on camera doing publicity for the film’s release. “I just had this one big idea. I thought, ‘Well, how about get the same cast. We’ll film a little bit each year.’ Like, ‘Well, could you do that? Would it work for a movie?’”
Casting a film with such a longitudinal premise would mean finding actors who could reasonably expect to commit to a project of such an unusual vertical scope: Each of them would need to be flexible enough so that the group could find a handful of days in common to shoot the various scenes every year, one after the other, until the child of six reached the age when most teens graduate from high school.
Linklater turned to a quartet which includes Ethan Hawke in the role of the father, Patricia Arquette as the mother. Their daughter is played by the director’s own daughter, Lorelei, who was nine-years-old at the time cameras first rolled.
In the role of the title character, the boy in Boyhood, the man who made his directorial debut in Austin, Texas, with Dazed and Confused, settled on a home-grown Austin native, Ellar Coltrane, to play the boy who grows up before the camera’s lens. The press notes for the film refer to the result as a “breakthrough performance” for the teen. Perhaps one-of-a-kind might have been a more literal way to describe it?
Arquette remembered the first conversation in this long adventure. “Richard called me, and he asked me, ‘What are you doing the next 12 years?’ And then he told me about this idea. I was – ‘I want to do it.’”
In Linklater’s estimation, “It was such a leap of faith. It was so much to ask of everyone, for Ellar to mature on camera. It’s a big thing not many actors have gone through.”
Said Hawke, “Boyhood is a complete original. It’s the first movie I’ve ever done that is not like another movie.”
The actor might be forgiven for expressing himself on behalf of all actors everywhere – unless someone somewhere can think of a similar project that takes one cast comprised of the same actors paired with a blueprint that becomes a script-in-progress – over a decade, plus two. Not very likely.
Audiences over the years have followed the changing lives of a group of real-life characters in the long-running examination of the same 14 British individuals over the course of nearly half a century – the first installment when they were just seven years of age. That small screen saga doesn’t call on the same people to assume fictional guises in sequential order as they mature and/or age, separated by 365 days, over and over and – well, over. Boyhood splits an entirely different atom.
Linklater said it was like a reunion every year. Arquette likened to being like family. For movie audiences, the experience may seem like an extended, time-lapse home movie. Using words such as dazzling, soulful, spellbinding and astonishing, more than 130 critics have weighed with positive reviews on the website RottenTomatoes – a rarefied score of 98 as of this writing. A sampling of audience members totalling more than 17 thousand scored it a combined none-too-shabby 92.
The number of critics holding a different view? Two. One dissenter called it “meandering and unfocused.” Love it, hate it, Boyhood fulfills its director’s initial premise – everyone stuck with it, and the project came to fruition. Whether Linklater’s vision meets the test of time has been answered – at least in part. Boyhood, an IFC release, runs 168 minutes and is rated R.