Jul 14, 2014
Life itself. This stunning achievement by Richard Linklater is a project of such lovely and daring vision that it expands the possibilities of narrative cinema. It opens new avenues for exploring stories in film, if anybody has Linklater's discipline and artistic integrity and command to make it happen. Boyhood makes a lot of other movies look fake and labored by comparison. That it dwarfs most family dramas ever made with a graceful, unpretentious sensibility makes it all the more astonishing a feat.
Why make a movie in several months when you could take over twelve years to tell the story of Mason, a little boy (Ellar Coltrane) who grows up to be a young man (Ellar Coltrane)? One doesn't fully realize the transcendent magic that this inspired artistic choice brings until you see Mason growing up before your very eyes. No need to use three different actors in different stages of a character's life. We see Mason, his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater), and their parents, the excellent Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, age with the subtle transformations that time etches on us all. There is no need for artificial wrinkles and globs of latex.
Linklater cuts from one period of Mason's life to another without title cards signaling time elapsed and without expository writing. Life is a continuum of subtle changes. Time just passes. How do we know? All of a sudden, although he still looks like a boy, Mason's voice has changed. His sister is becoming a teenager. As in life, we go: "They grow up so fast!" By the end, as the movie gains in depth and wisdom, we realize that the film itself has been maturing before our eyes, from a carefree, well observed exploration of childhood, to posing the momentous questions that arise at the brink of adulthood.
It all starts with a dreamy boy who doesn't do his homework (better yet: he does it but refuses to submit it). We spend plenty of time in the daily rhythms of his life with his mother, his sister, his neighborhood friends on bikes.
Childhood is a period where children are at the mercy of their parents' choices, and Linklater shows us how frustrated everyone is by this arrangement. His kids are full of themselves in the best possible way; they are independent, growing minds, and as such they feel put upon by every upheaval, big or small, provoked by adult decisions they cannot control. Meanwhile, their mom can't go to a movie, spend time alone, go on a date. She wants to go to college in order to give them a better life, so they have to move. Indifferent to how much she does for them, the kids whine about this major inconvenience. Childhood is the feeling of not having any power or any say in the decision making. That comes later. In the meantime, there is friction, and much pushing for freedom. But like their parents, Mason and Samantha do not engage in self-destruction. They are regular kids.
The parents, Mason and Olivia, do not help matters by making iffy choices, which are bewildering and even feel blasé to the children, considering the painful and difficult challenges they bring. Yet everybody is resilient. Nothing is too much of a nightmare, because in this world people are still blessed with some common sense and manners. And because these kids are loved.
Mason's is a relatively uneventful life, as lives in the movies go. There are no terrible tragedies, no artificial stakes. It is the story of so many children in America: divorced parents, multiple marriages, extended adopted families, moving a lot looking for jobs and opportunities. We are so used to terrible things happening in movies, and this one shows such a placid (but by no means uneventful) life, that when we see a scene with people driving on the open road, or some kids making mischief without adult supervision, we fear something very bad is going to happen. Nothing of the sort. People are flawed, but mostly sane. Bad things do happen, as a result mostly of well-intentioned choices, and they are dealt with more tough but sensible choices, that is, things that people actually do.
This movie upends everything they tell you in screenwriting school about inciting incidents and act structure and high stakes. Not that it is unstructured. It has a highly complex set of character arcs, but it also aims to imitate life, rather than to heighten it dramatically or corset it into artificially defined acts. The arc, what is called the hero's journey, simply happens to be that of a young man's life. He grows into his own, not by the commission of fearless actions, but by the constitution of his own self, by his day to day exploration, at school, at home, of who he is and who he wants to be. His progress is poignantly contrasted with his father's journey. Hawke, very charming as Mason Sr., a rather rootless bohemian, becomes someone quite different in middle age. Without fanfare or unnecessary dialogue, we discover he's trying to make it work the second time around. It is tender, and not a little disturbing comedy to watch him end up compromising with his ideological polar opposites. What Mason thinks of this transformation of his dad into squaredom central is only hinted at, but we are with him: what in the hell? But also, such is life, and most certainly, such is middle age. Dad's arc is very funny and moving, as there is no judgment, but rather a wistful recognition of people's need for reinvention.
Olivia also grows. She becomes a respected teacher, who finally gets fed up of always being the cornerstone for everyone at home. Everyone's life keeps expanding, she wants to contract. She yearns for simplification. She has given so much, and now even in her self-declared independence, she suddenly faces looking back and sizing up her life. The one character that is given short shrift is Samantha. We see her turn from a sassy little sister to a young, confident adult, but we don't get much of a sense of substance from her. The movie centers on Mason, and it is through his shrewd and sensitive observation that we understand the lives orbiting around him.
From a rather rambling start, the movie creeps up on us emotionally and gains shape and depth as Linklater unleashes quiet epiphanies. As we peek into Mason's mostly mundane activities, all of a sudden we realize how his social circle expands with step-siblings, remarkable teachers, new friends at school. These characters may come and go, but they will become his history, part of his memory and of his deepest self. For him it is always the present, as he himself observes. We have the privilege of witnessing his passage as it flows in life, hurling towards the future with both calm and alacrity. So Boyhood is also a film about the nature of time. And it dispenses with some of the artificial conventions of time in film. There are no flashbacks. Time elapses organically, though thankfully not in real time. We see it passing by watching the actors actually age. Linklater's cuts between the intervening years work like our memory works. We don't remember absolutely everything, only the highlights.
You may also find yourself recognizing how life is a cycle that repeats itself in other people, making us all connected in experience. Everybody is unique but we are all the same. There's always gonna be another little girl imitating Britney Spears, or her next incarnation, until the end of time. Will Mason follow in his father's missteps or will he find his own way to screw up? What are the mysterious forces that shape our individual and collective lives? We watch as an almost alchemical process of becoming unfolds. It is magical.
Boyhood is also a movie about life in America. For most middle class people and compared to most of the world, its a life of modestly uneventful, barely appreciated ease (no children in war or labor, no hunger or poverty). It is a life where children, if they are lucky, have parents like Mason's, who teach them basic principles, and who are there to give them a spine.
However, this quiet parental achievement takes place not in breezy leisure but in a constant, exhausting struggle to remain financially above ground. It is not as comfy an American life as we were supposed to have. The middle class is crushed in an endless battle for economic and social stability. Parents are saddled with mounting bills while trying to give kids structure and comfort, sometimes at the cost of their own sanity. Linklater also reminds us that through the span of Mason's young life this country has been engaged in distant wars we all too readily ignore, and to whose fallout in terms of human suffering we have been mostly indifferent.
Boyhood is an enormous achievement, logistically and artistically. Just two modest examples: picking the right boy for the main role is an incredible risk. He may be cute at the age of five, but what told Linklater that Ellar Coltrane would become interesting and manageable as he grew up? He is charismatic and quietly compelling, if not a De Niro in training. I also wonder about the creative process, in which the script had to be adjusted as reality, events and technology rapidly arised. All and any eventualities are handled with incredible smoothness, restraint, confidence and subtlety. Linklater has become a master.
By the end, we arrive at the beginning of Mason's young life. He is at the brink of becoming a man, and poignantly, an artist. From all we now know about where he comes from, we are confident that he is ready for wherever he is headed. Despite their mistakes, his parents' love and constant presence have done right by him.
This is the most realistically hopeful American movie I have ever seen. It is a film that trusts that people in this country, in spite of everything that conspires to make it extreme and ridiculous, still have the sense and mettle to be decent and to rise above.