Saturday, August 16, 2014

Boyhood


Grade: 88/A-

It’s not a new idea to watch a character or group of characters age on screen. François Truffaut did it in his Antoine Doinel series, the Up documentaries follow a group of Londoners over the course of 45 years and 8 features, and Boyhood director Richard Linklater himself has traced a relationship from college age to middle-age in the Before trilogy. But it’s remarkable to see the youth and adolescence of a boy over the course of one fictional film, which Linklater shot over the course of 12 years little by little, incorporating what was going on in actor Ellar Coltrane’s life to fit the film.  The conception of Boyhood is so remarkable that it’s hard not to focus more on the gimmick and overarching structure over the film’s smaller (yet greater) virtues.

Coltrane stars as Mason Evans, Jr., who lives with divorced mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and sister Samantha (Linklater’s daughter Loralei) and sees father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) every other week. He witnesses his mother’s two additional failed marriages (including to an abusive alcoholic played by Marco Perella) and her transformation from back-to-school mother to college psychology professor. He experiences first love and first breakup, experiments with drugs and alcohol, and goes from quiet boy to talented teenage photographer and an amateur philosopher ready to join Linklater’s bull session films Slacker or Waking Life.

There’s an inherent fascination in watching Coltrane (and young Loralei Linklater, who could just as easily carry her own film, Girlhood) grow from a hesitant to a confident presence, both as a boy and as an actor. In Boyhood’s early sections, the key to his performance is its apparent lack of performance, of innocent mischief (an early comment about breaking a pencil sharpener by trying to sharpen rocks into arrowheads, pretending to know more about sex as an eighth grader than he does) and of a kid trying to process his parents’ divorce or his stepdad’s strictness and alcoholism.

As a teenager, however, Coltrane starts to form a more distinct personality, someone more willing to voice his frustration and confusion at what his place in the world is. Dazed and Confused fans might recognize traces of Wiley Wiggins’s dorky freshman, right up to the point where Mason hits his junior and senior years, stops faking confidence and starts (sometimes – appropriately – infuriatingly) actually developing it.

The genius of Linklater’s film is in how it’s somehow rooted in the perspectives of both the kids and the parents. Early scenes embody childhood confusion at the big, scary, complicated arguments world of the grown-ups, whether Mason hears mom’s boyfriend complaining that she can’t devote more time to them or, perhaps more distressingly, Mason and Samantha can see but can’t hear their parents yelling at each other outside for reasons that we can guess but can’t know; a later scene, in which Mason Sr. sells the car he promised his son for his 16th birthday without thinking of or remembering his promise, captures teenage disappointment and frustration as well as any scene in recent memory.

But we also see both Samantha and Mason act like, well, inconsiderate teenagers around their parents, with the former blowing off picking up her brother when her mother counted on her, then treating her mother’s complaints as an unfair annoyance. Some of Mason’s youthful tendencies are even simpler, like having to be chided to wash a dish to make his mother’s life that much easier, or coming home after curfew, or treating a school assignment to shoot a football game as an excuse to get arty with his photography. None of these moments feel like a head-shaking “kids these days” sentiment, nor do Mason’s experimentations with booze and pot feel sensationalistic. It’s all matter-of-fact, with Mason’s limited perspective sometimes clashing with the older, wiser view of his parents (and of Linklater). Part of growing up is not realizing how hard it is for parents to raise you.

That story is just as matter-of-fact, and with few exceptions, Olivia’s story never feels needlessly heavy. Arquette has the most difficult role in the film, as she’s required to be warm, scolding, frustrated and empathetic, often switching back-and-forth between modes in one scene. So much of what’s great about her performance is simply watching her become a more exhausted person as the film goes on, someone who had big dreams, reinvented herself, and gave her kids a better life but still hasn’t found the place she wants to be.

The film’s only real missteps are big ones, involving the men Arquette marries and divorces. With the first, there’s an immediate feeling of tiresome inevitability as soon as he’s introduced, of “how is this going to blow up,” and, when his alcoholism becomes a factor, “how long before he hits mom?” While the individual scenes are well-played, they feel programmatic compared to the free-flowing and adaptable nature of the rest of the film, as if there was need for Capital-D Drama somewhere in the story, and the stepfather goes from stern but empathetic to little more than a device, a heavy. And while the apparent rationale behind having Arquette marry another (thankfully not physically abusive) controlling alcoholic is sound (we often repeat ourselves in life), it can’t help but have the same mechanistic feeling where as soon as the character is introduced we know exactly what his function is.

The film’s better emotional scenes are less showy. Many will cite Arquette’s breakdown as Mason, her second and youngest child, leaves for college as a moving moment. It is, but an even smaller and greater moment comes earlier, as a character she helped earlier in the film approaches her to thank her for what she did for him; she’s in the middle of admonishing her kids to please just do what she said, and her switch from irritated mother to someone moved she could make a difference, especially when her life has been so disappointing to her.

So much of what’s great in Boyhood is about small observations and changes, like watching Hawke (in one of his most likable and empathetic performances) change from the good-time Hawke of Before Sunrise to the more sentimental Hawke of Before Midnight, or hearing the pop culture that matters to Mason and Samantha at any given point (Mason is astonished that the girl he likes could dislike The Dark Knight, Tropic Thunder and Pineapple Express), or watching Hawke tell his kids all about supporting Obama or “anyone but Bush” without giving them a real idea of why they should actually care or what any of it means.

It’s watching how much and how little changes in children and parents over the years and between generations (admittedly something older and future generations will be able to speak to with more acuity, given my own close-ish proximity in age to Coltrane). It’s about becoming an individual and still searching for meaning in life, about dad’s awkward but truthful metaphors (“life doesn’t give you bumpers”) or mom’s mix of relief and sadness in her last kid leaving for college.

Through it all, Linklater maintains the same unshowy but assured touch, whether he’s giving the kids a limited POV shot during an argument or letting Coltrane and his girlfriend’s relationship play out in carefully-selected two shots and close-ups, drawing them closer to each other, and then, in the film’s final year, framing them in a wide shot far apart from each other after they’ve broken up. With each selection and each observed moment, Boyhood’s modus operandi is one of supreme empathy. It’s not a great movie because it’s relatable (a term that flaunts limited perspective and assumed universality). It’s a great movie because whether it’s seen from the perspective of the boy, the sister, the parents, a teenager, a twentysomething or older, it’s understandable.

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