Thursday, July 10, 2014
Dir. Richard Linklater
4 out of 5
Parenting is difficult. Watching movies is not. But engaging with a film can be a bit like seeing a child grow up. We are there in its first moments and are struck its initial self-confidence. We watch as it finds its footing, hoping that it develops an identity without suffering too many growing pains. And we may be disappointed or upset when it doesn't turn out the way we wanted, but you still have to find a way to accept it on its own terms.
Richard Linklater's Boyhood employs no such analogies, yet I felt for the movie the same way I felt for its main character, Mason (Ellar Coltrane). Filmed intermittently over a 12-year period with the same group of actors, it follows Mason throughout a childhood that transforms him from a daydreaming 6-year-old into an artsy, introverted 18-year-old. Friends and girlfriends come and go, but he's primarily influenced by his family members and their own changes - mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette), a hardworking single parent whose desire for upward mobility collides with a tragic and turbulent love life; father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), a hyperactive "cool dad" who gradually reforms his absentee ways; and sister Samantha (the director's real-life progeny Lorelei Linklater), whose energetic presence early in the film gives way to the kind of shyness you'd expect from a normal teenage girl coming of age in front of a camera.
Still, Boyhood's success depends on Coltrane, and Linklater has to be thanking his lucky stars that the casting turned out so well. The movie's tone is set by Mason's combination of bemusement and curiosity, then later by his rebellious streak. He doesn't over-react to things - even when he probably should - which lets the movie unspool its epic-length story without seeming like a collection of puberty's greatest hits. If there's one issue with the pacing, it's that Linklater downplays the traumatic moments a bit too much, leading to a strange sensation where the audience is ready for them to pop up at any moment. More than once, a scene feels like it's heading into after-school special territory before it ends in almost the most prosaic way possible.
Beyond its central experiment, Boyhood also cannot help but be a commentary on the times in which it was filmed. Mason Sr. is Linklater's mouthpiece for complaints about the George W. Bush administration and the war in Iraq. Olivia symbolizes the squeezing of the middle class, as her attempts to provide more for her family end with her in a position of even greater financial vulnerability. And the film really gets how people increasingly find connection and fulfillment inside popular culture. For a long time, it's the common tongue of Masons Sr. and Jr. - "Do you think they'll ever make a new Star Wars movie?" is dad's idea of a conversational springboard. These injections are as natural as Linklater can possibly make them, but there's inevitably a patchwork aesthetic, with reliable storytelling shorthand like the style of Mason's hair or the jarring use of distinctive - though not exactly timeless - pop songs used to mark the passage of time.
However, it's obvious that Boyhood is very dear to Linklater's heart. The latter parts of the movie borrow liberally from his biography as a young man struggling to make art in Texas, geographically and culturally removed from the people who would better understand his aspirations. His rebellion is understandable, but in a way Linklater condescends to people who doesn't share Mason's soulful purity or sense of detachment. There's definitely a transition from Boyhood into Pretentious Teenagerhood as Mason's angst hardens into a kind of high-minded solipsism. But as they say, it's just a phase. And knowing the trials that Mason went through, it's tough to for us to label him as permanently disaffected or cynical. Boyhood is simply an achievement on so many levels - as a masterclass in editing, as a document of Texas' natural diversity, as a Herculean labor of persistence - that I can forgive the film and the character this little bit of patronization. Boyhood might not be exactly what I wanted or expected from a wide-angle look at the modern American adolescent, but I'm proud of it just the same.