' ' Cinema Romantico: Boyhood

Monday, July 28, 2014


Perhaps the most astonishing element of the astonishing “Boyhood”, a virtually unprecedented project in which director Richard Linklater filmed the same actors over a twelve year period in an effort to truly convey the rhythms and effects of an entire upbringing, is its utter conventionality. When such laudatory ambition is a film’s calling card, it typically signals an unheard of narrative slant or filmmaking innovation, but aside from a number of simply elegant frames intended to capture the fundamentally picturesque - like a sunset in Texas, or a camping trip pseudo-sing along – the visual style is unshowy, and the narrative is almost aggressively formulaic. Yet without saying much new at all, “Boyhood” manages to convey an enlightening cinematic experience that feels entirely original. 

The film essentially opens with our protagonist of the title, Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), laying in the grass in his native Texas, staring up at the sky, his head, as he is quickly told afterwards, in the clouds. It is a poetical opening perfectly juxtaposing with the weight of quietly crushing reality to follow. He and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the auteur’s daughter), a few years older, are the children of a struggling single mother (Patricia Arquette), who returns to school to carve out a better future and gets involved with a string of men whose quality seems beneath her true-to-life nobility. Their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke), is requisitely absentee, beginning in Alaska (is that where all confused men flee?) and returning home to be with his kids, but without necessarily wanting responsibility's weight. This traditionally untraditional family’s ups and downs and middles are then chronicled, with little to no surprise. But surprises are not the point. “Boyhood”, observational without becoming a docudrama, is about existence. Not existence as in “why are we here?”, though that question is addressed with its own sort of everyman philosophy, but in existing, in how our lives are marked by the passage of time.

By its very nature, “Boyhood” is episodic. Beginning in the past – 2002 to be precise – and then moving forward, the film functions as a time capsule – indulging in the dated sites of oversized tabletop computers and Harry Potter book signings. Yet in spite of these elements and many others, the film resists an annoying overt and jokey insistence on them. They merely are. When Mason Sr. later in the film laments he learns about his kids’ life on Facebook, it’s incredible how natural it feels. At one point in time, it isn't; then, it is.

But by its very nature the film also requires time-jumping, not just in years but in months and days, and it yields one of the film's few flaws as crucial texture necessary for arc and characterization is jettisoned. In particular, Arquette’s post-Mason Sr. spouses both devolve into alcoholics, the first a monster and the second more inwardly enraged. These tangents wreak of cliché (and the Oscar-nominated French short from last year, “Just Before Losing Everything”, is a more affecting dramatization of a family fleeing an abusive spouse) but it’s difficult to gauge the characters’ precise metamorphoses into drunken louts when the majority of these transformations are required on account of running time to happen off screen. Then again, that lack of specifics – or, more appropriately, the loss of those specifics, is unwittingly a strength. So many specifics get lost in the accumulating dust of years gone by, and if the kids and their mother remember the alcoholic outbursts, maybe they don’t quite remember what brought them about.

Ellar Coltrane was six when filming started and eighteen when it ended, mirroring his role, and so we actually see Coltrane – er, Mason Jr. – navigate the pitfalls of going through puberty on camera. His youthful long hair is chopped away (reluctantly) for a buzz cut and then grown back out. He changes his style, his clothes, his attitude. His voice registers different octaves. And it’s not just Coltrane. It’s Linklater. “When you go through all of those awkward things that happen to us in adolescence and post-adolescence,” the singer/songwriter Jenny Lewis recently said in an interview, “to experience that in front of the camera and in front of other people is really uncomfortable.” And here are Coltrane and Linklater, having those experiences in front of the camera and in front of us. And it’s not just them. It’s Patricia Arquette, and her willingness to let her physical shifts be documented is the epitome of that word which is “supposed” to be avoided in film reviews at all costs – namely, brave. It’s brave because this is Hollywood and in Hollywood even the slightest sign of an actress aging can find her unceremoniously dumped into the “Not” column of a hideous “Hot or Not?” list.

And the though the film's title is “Boyhood”, the subtitle may well be Parenthood, because Linklater explores the maturation process not merely for children but for adults. Arquette’s mom struggles with insecurity even as she experiences professional success, and Hawke’s dad becomes a singular illustration of a life as a work in progress. Hawke, in fact, sneakily gives the best performance in the film, and one of the best performances I can recall of a semi-deadbeat dad, a man-child, to use the parlance of our movie times, but obliterating the archetype in the process, breaking off into something wholly authentic. It is subtly layered, deceptively complex, a man growing by feet and inches rather than leaps and bounds, but the change he makes by the end is real, and it is made all the more affecting because the actor conveys how difficult it was to come by and how far he still has to go – how far we (you, me, all of us) have to go.

“Boyhood” runs for two hours and forty-four minutes, a seeming eternity when it starts, gone in the blink of an eye when it ends. It would appear to demand re-visitation, yet part of me feels that to re-visit it would compromise the film's very spirit for we merely re-visit the past in our mind. What’s gone is gone. We shed our skins. We forge ahead.


Alex Withrow said...

Love this review, and I'm so happy you enjoyed this one as much as I did. You said some very eloquent things about Hawke's performance, which was great to read.

"...a man growing by feet and inches rather than leaps and bounds..." is just so spot on.

Your final paragraph is a great thought, and a very interesting idea. But man, this was one of the few movies of recent memory that I saw twice right in a row. Loved it so much more the second time, which I didn't think was possible.

Nick Prigge said...

No, I understand the need to see it again. I'll see it again myself, no doubt. That thought just popped into my head right after I left the theater. I kept thinking of that last shot in Before Sunrise when they close their eyes and try to hold onto the memory.