Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Boyhood (***)

Written and Directed by Richard Linklater


In Richard Linklater's beloved Before trilogy, Ethan Hawke plays a novelist named Jesse. In Before Sunset and Before Midnight, Jesse is given a particular scene to describe his ideas for future novels and all of his interests seem to deal with time: a man watches his daughter dance and it transports him back into his past, another man is living in a state of constant deja vu, etc. We can see now that this is not only an obsession held by this character alone. Ethan Hawke's time-obsessed novelist is not dissimilar from Linklater himself, and the projects that he has accomplished. Plot is not Linklater's main interest, he'd rather see the way characters change with time. He doesn't believe that characters only exist within their own manufactured story, he has legitimate interest in what they keep doing once the story ends, to see them as they develop all new issues to deal with, to see how they change as people. The Before films were not just sequels, they were continuations, with a documentary-like examination of the humanity of character. Boyhood might be the most extreme execution of this interest. Shot over the course of twelve years, time is presented to us: the evolution of a boy, a family and an entire nation over the course of just over a decade. What started as an experiment turned into a film unlike any other, and I can't think of anyone better than Linklater to be at the helm of it.

In 2002, Linklater found the child actor Ellar Coltrane and began writing the story of a young boy named Mason. Busting free of cinema's dependence on schedule and efficiency, Linklater continued to tell the story of Mason a little at a time, coming back every year, flush with a year's worth of ideas to infuse into the story. Mason grows older, and so does Coltrane. The effect is almost surreal, to see an entire life truncated into 166 minutes. This is different from Apted's Up documentary series - which produced a new documentary in the life fourteen specific British children every seven years, the most recent one in 2012, when the subjects were 56 - because Linklater isn't striving for realism here. This is a strict narrative tale of a boy's coming of age and Linklater is forcing us to conceive the narrative as real. As always, Linklater is blending the line better than any other filmmaker has been able to before. He's aware of reactions one will have to not only watching Coltrane grow older, but his co-stars in Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke grow older too. These are names and faces we're familiar with, and to see their characters grow into middle age is an exercise in reliving history. It's a hard reaction to explain. I had a similar feeling while watching Ken Lonergan's Margaret which was made in 2004 but not released till 2011 - those actors were in a time capsule. But that film didn't bring things back to the present like Boyhood.

I can't even imagine the patience it takes to complete this kind of project; to hold off creative sparks and new ideas for a whole year (probably more than one) as you wait for your actor to age. This, above all, seems to be Linklater's greatest achievement here. His ability to keep this film in the moment, to not get swayed by his own creative whimsy and keep the film evolving with each passing year. At the film's open, Mason is a six-year-old living with his mother, Olivia (Arquette), and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director's daughter). Their father, Mason Sr. (Hawke), has been out of the picture for an extended time, leaving the family to find himself as a songwriter in Alaska. When Mason's mother decides to go back to school, the family is moved to Houston, Texas, where Mason Sr. returns but only with interest in being a part-time parent. Young Mason and Samantha do their best to find peace between their exhausted mother and absent father. In an attempt to rebuild a familial normalcy, Olivia marries one her professors, Bill (Marco Perella), who has two kids of his own. The marriage quickly dissolves as Bill's destructive alcoholism and violent temper puts the whole family in danger and Olivia escapes with her two children.

Mason and his family are always in a state of duress, whether it be moving to a new house or the simple struggle of never having quite enough money. Samantha provides the kind of couldn't-care-less attitude that one should expect from an older sister - that relationship ringing true in every shape and form - while Mason Sr. arrives every other weekend to provide the only glimpse of a father figure Mason's bound to get. Boyhood charts milestones in the form of haircuts and sick days, ignoring chores and looking at racy pictures in a lingerie magazine. Linklater gives Hawke those wonderful speeches that the actor is so good at reciting, but mostly Linklater is appreciating the mundane moments that most people take for granted. As Mason becomes a teenager, his views of the world expand and his opinions become jaded. Like most teens, he rebels against his parents, a second alcoholic stepfather (Brad Hawkins) and even his own generation. He loudly proclaims the stupidity of the trends that so many kids his age love to partake in. He falls in love with a girl (Zoe Graham) and is naive to think that it will last forever. The temptation of adding plot-contrived tragedy into the story seems too good to resist, and that audience expectation creates a great tension that Linklater never lets go of. He never lets his movie become just a movie.

The idea of Boyhood as an experiment/gimmick is always something the audience is incredibly aware of. The film is not a masterpiece, and it succeeds in certain moments more than others. To expect Coltrane to deliver an excellent performance as he becomes a teenager is probably a little unfair, though it's interesting to see him obviously become more insecure as a performer within his more vulnerable years. But the film does have moments that are shrunken by a young man who is doing his best to deliver on a promise he made as a six-year-old boy. I don't know anyone who might be able to strive under that scrutiny. There's probably a reason he's been a child actor since 2002 and we haven't heard of him until now. Linklater meanders a bit in the second half, dwelling on Mason's teenaged angst in a way that becomes a little redundant. This is part of the deal with Linklater. The only other contemporary filmmaker like him is Jim Jarmusch. They both work a lot but not because they have all these stories to tell, but because they are always looking for a way to expand narrative filmmaking beyond its current use. It's a noble thing. Jarmusch is much more of a formalist, though, while Linklater has always put most of the cinematic burden on his actors. His experiments have to do with us seeing characters as more than pawns. With the Before series, that was ideal. In Boyhood, not every scene quite meets that level of excellence.

This is the most ambitious thing that Linklater has ever done, in a career filled with brilliance and innovation. It's far from my favorite film of his. Over the twelve years he was shooting this, he also made nine other features, and more than half of them (including Before Sunset, Before Midnight, School of Rock, Bernie and Me and Orson Welles) were probably better and definitely more entertaining. But Boyhood is a film that will be discussed widely because of the way it elevates high above it's own high-end gimmick. It's not only a passion project for Linklater, but for his group of actors, who all show a dedication to their craft that's unlike anything else. Arquette, in particular, gives a vanity-free performance as long-suffering single mother. Her struggle is always in the background, a B-side to the story of Mason, but Arquette stayed committed to this complex character, a symbol of strength through a string of iffy life decisions. Linklater, always a terrific grafter of female characters, makes one of his best here, and you can see why so many actors return to work with him when you see the performances that he's able to nurture. Boyhood is an appropriate addition to Linklater's canon, with its audaciousness and deceptively large scope. The filmmaker obsessed with time finally makes a film with time as its pure subject. About time.


Tele Gram said...

Time is the most utterly subjective experience we have - one minute can seem like hours, days melting into a few moments and, what did I have for breakfast? It's inherent in film that time can be "created" or controlled, made to cause an impression of a character or place more or less striking because of its duration on camera or its manipulation in that space where the scene unfolds. What you've described of Linklater's project reminds me of the multiple films of Truffaut that follow the life of his character Antoine Doniel, played by Jean-Pierre Leaud, from "The 400 Blows" to four films later with "Love on the Run," a project of 20 years. I wonder if Linklater and his collaborator have something in mind for the future? Anyhow, the growth of a single story within a single character in one film seems to be this director's project. Do we feel that we come to know him and his humanity?

James Colon said...

I think the Doniel/Truffaut films are a great comparison. As well as Linklater's 'Before' series. I think this system might be more effective spread out over different films, watching characters age as we age. All in one film, it felt more interesting as an idea than an actual piece. The film is a collection of some pretty amazing moments, and some other uneven ones. I think we get to know the protagonist pretty well, but not as well as we with the Doniel films, for instance.