Director’s pet projects are often described as a labour of love, but Richard Linklater’s new film Boyhood (released in both UK and US cinemas today) is perhaps the most pertinent example of that phrase, having experienced an incredibly long birthing period in cinematic terms. Shot using the same actors (lead Ellar Coltrane makes the leap from ethereal 6 year old, awkward adolescent, and finally, insightful young adult with effortless ease) over a couple of weeks and spread over 12 consecutive years, this is filmmaking without a safety net.

Already laden with superlatives from those who have seen it (and justifiably so) it’s a bravura effort which gently compels you to reflect on your own life, and the staggeringly swift passage of time that seems to pass as you increase in age (the then-twelve year-old Coltrane reflecting on the best films of 2008 with screen father Ethan Hawke makes that year seem like a lifetime ago). It leaves you with an almost painful yearning to return that time of being on the cusp of adulthood, and despite the film’s overt conceit, it feels as far from gimmicky as imaginable. Those moments of Coltrane’s physical transformation register on an almost subconscious level as you’re completely consumed by the narrative.

Most tellingly, Boyhood represents something of an evolution in the craft of film-making, which Linklater was undoubtedly cognisant of when he embarked on the venture. Whether you’re a big studio director in the Spielberg mould, or a struggling underground artist, film is invariably a crapshoot. The potential stumbling blocks which could have befallen the production of Boyhood were particularly precarious, however. While Linklater and his team have ultimately succeeded in realising the initial aims of the project and forming a cohesive bond, imagine all the elements which were simply out of the production’s control. What other film has actually remained in active production for 12 years?

Admittedly, budget-wise, we’re talking the kind of money which would pay for a day’s filming on a Marvel production (the film’s distributor IFC signed off on a yearly fund of $200,000, equating to around to $2.4 million over the whole shooting period), but given the uniquely staggered shooting schedule, there must have been a fair amount of unease from both a financial and artistic point of view.  The biggest mishap for the production would have been the loss of any of Linklater’s principal players, which would have instantly derailed the project without any conceivable way of salvaging things. Recasting would have betrayed the whole evolutionary notion of the film (Linklater is said to have jokingly warned Hawke that if he was run over during production, he’d still be required to finish the film).boyhood

The two keys elements attributed to the film’s success have to be IFC’s utmost faith in the project and that unswerving optimism and an unusually keen foresight from Linklater. He’s a filmmaker who has proved his worth in effortlessly hopping between genres, previously fostering diverse and potentially tricky material to the screen (his genuinely astounding work within rotoscope animation, as seen in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, still feels hugely underappreciated). The first phase of Boyhood began a year before his 2003 $100m+ breakout hit School of Rock, so the director didn’t even have that bankability factor to assuage any fears.

But this unique process also throws up some unintentional surprises that even Linklater couldn’t have anticipated. There’s a subtle shifting in the film’s aesthetic as the years progress. Early on it has both a look and feel of the types of indie cinema which emerged in the late-90s/early-noughties because, in reality, that’s where the segment originates from. The noticeably (real) pregnant belly of Patricia Arquette (fantastic in the role of Coltrane’s mother) is glimpsed at briefly mid-way through the film, and rather charmingly, there doesn’t appear to be have been any attempts to mask it. We’re watching the actress grow alongside her character. A post-Episode III Star Wars conversation about whether the series has further longevity is highly amusing precisely because it was made at that time and isn’t an oh-so-clever pop cultural commentary with the benefit of hindsight.

It’s these fascinating components, achieved incidentally or by design, which really compliment the rich storytelling in Boyhood. Here’s hoping its success inspires other filmmakers to take the plunge and tinker around with the representation of time within a narrative, or indeed, any other evolutionary leaps of the medium. Linklater may have ventured into cinematic territory unknown, and for a prolonged period, but this risky proposition has paid off handsomely.