Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Boyhood / **** (R)

Mason: Ellar Coltrane
Mom: Patricia Arquette
Dad: Ethan Hawke
Samantha: Lorelei Linklater

IFC Films presents a film written and directed by Richard Linklater. Running time: 165 min. Rated R (for language including sexual references, and for teen drug and alcohol use).

“It’s like the moment is always right now.”
                                                            —Mason, “Boyhood”.

Mason is the central figure in the boldest movie ever made by independent filmmaker Richard Linklater, “Boyhood”. Those are the last words spoken in the movie. They at once encapsulate the meaning behind the entire movie and the fact that there is nothing conventional about any movie that takes twelve years to film, depicting the childhood of a boy from age 6 to age 18. Mason speaks the words and they kind of peeter off toward the end of his sentence because he and the audience recognize the rather pathetic attempt at depth he is making, and yet as a line in this movie in particular, his thought is rather profound.

What you’ve heard about this movie is that it took 12 years to film. It was made with one set of cast members during glimpses into their characters’ lives each year over the course of twelve. You don’t have a child actor playing Mason at the age of 6, another playing him at the age of twelve and finally a different one playing him on the cusp of adulthood. Ellar Coltrane gets the opportunity here more experienced actors might dream of—to return to a role year after year, never repeating what has come before, ever adding to his mastery of it. He handles it like a master at that, proving the ever-fast rule that children have a natural propensity toward acting, not having had the chance to build the walls against this natural ability that adults have done.

Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette play the boy’s parents. We don’t have to endure them in terrible wigs designed to make them look younger in the early scenes, or with age make up, or even worse not looking any older at all for the later scenes. We watch these people age as the movie goes along. There is also a slightly older sister played by Linklater’s real life daughter, who also journeys from a little girl holding on to the last of her baby fat to blossom as a beautiful young adult during the course of the film.

Seeing these characters age with their characters, rather than battling against their character’s lack of an aging process, goes a ways toward convincing the audience that filming a story over such a long period of time is more than a mere gimmick. The rest of whatever knowledge you bring into this film is washed away by the fact that Linklater’s approach to the story is utterly lacking in gimmicks and typical Hollywood emotional manipulation and plotting techniques. To be sure, this is a fictionalized story. This is not some sort of documentary following this family over the course of a twelve-year period. It is a structured drama that has build ups and pay offs. It doesn’t wander or meander on what it is to exist or grow or develop in modern America, and yet it observes those things. There are moments that it highlights. There are points to be made. And yet, at the center of it all there is simply a boy growing into manhood in a way you’ve never seen before unless you’ve actually witnessed it in your own children or a child to which you are close.

Mason’s parents are divorced as the movie begins. The split is fairly fresh at this point and Arquette is adept at bottling the tension she feels about the situation just below the surface of the scenes. She cares deeply for her children and her relationship with her husband threatens to destroy their world. She shows us how hard good parents work to make sure that doesn’t happen even when they are part of the situation that creates it.

Mom isn’t particularly good at choosing male partners. There seems to be a cycle in Mason’s life of alcoholic and abusive father figures. One man is a professor his mother meets while taking college courses to better her employment opportunities. He seems to her what she needs. With two children of his own, there’s the promise of stability; but something is off with the way his children look at him at times. Another man later in the film is a war veteran who comes home with confidence in himself only to find he doesn’t quite fit into that hero role outside of a war setting. These secondary characters don’t only serve to further the family’s story, but they each carry their own stories with them as well.

Mason’s father is perhaps one of the most complex and developed father figures I’ve seen in the movies. Hawke is well cast as this man who is rather immature about being a dad to begin with, but who learns and grows as much as Mason does over the course of the film. Like many divorced dads, his role is one formed out of weekend friendship at first. He gets to take the children away on adventures whenever he gets them and he doesn’t quite understand that there’s much more to being a parent than that. His growth saves Mason and the film from suffering the typical Hollywood father syndrome of having the male influence being primarily a negative one.

By the end of the film Mason’s dad has given up on all his own boyhood illusions about life, although he still refers to it as “giving up.” I suspect a few years later down the line he may even be grateful for shedding those once serious, now silly notions about what’s good in life. He eventually becomes a dad once again with a new family, which also illustrates the new modern dynamic of families going beyond the traditional nuclear and extended definitions. Best of all, he becomes a positive influence on Mason and his sister.

There are other smaller developments throughout the movie. Mason has a very interesting conversation with a girl from high school at one point involving another girl and the difference he and the girl he’s talking with share apart from their peers. Is she the one who really likes him? Linklater never lets us in on the truth, as many of these truths often remain a mystery throughout our lives. I remember a girl from high school whom I had always wanted to ask out, but never had the guts. After we had graduated I noticed in my yearbook that she expressed similar feelings toward me in a note she wrote, yet somehow we never saw each other again.

It’s these smaller moments that also fly against the conventions of Hollywood filmmaking. There were several instances in the screening I attended where the audience seemed convinced the story was going a certain way and it never did. There is a scene when Mason is bullied in a new school. The incident happens and then is never referenced again. I was happy to see this, because Mason seemed the type of person that wouldn’t give bullies any satisfaction. There is another scene when Mason is hanging out with several other kids unchaperoned in a house under construction. At one point they start playing throwing stars with a circular saw blade against a piece of drywall. The audience started gasping as if something terrible was going to happen. Surely, Mason was about to end up with a saw blade through his wrist or worse, as the one who threw it into one of the other kid’s hands. No such travesty occurs. Kids do things that make adults uncomfortable all the time when adults aren’t looking. This is a fact this film knows.

“Boyhood” is a profound movie on the most human level. It doesn’t espouse some agenda. It doesn’t have some deep philosophical question hanging in its periphery. It doesn’t ask us to ponder the deep mysteries of the universe. It does, however, make us think about life from all different kinds of perspectives. It makes us think about childhood and adulthood. We see things as a parent, or as a son, or as a daughter, or a divorcee, an abused spouse, a single mother, a dad left out, and a boy just trying to do what he wants. “Boyhood” is more than just the story of one boy’s childhood; it is the story of all of our experiences. I would be surprised to see a better movie this year.

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