Tuesday, July 22, 2014
BOYHOOD is Richard Linklater's Must-See Magnum Opus
- It's the eternal paradox of storytelling: the most specific stories are also the most universal. Such is BOYHOOD, a stone-cold masterpiece of a film from Richard Linklater. This is the story of one boy and his family, but in this story is all of our stories. In this film is cut-to-the-core truth, the kind that only great art can give us. Throughout his storied career as a filmmaker, Linklater has always sought to capture the moments-between-moments, the small moments in life that, in truth, are the big moments. But rarely - if ever? - has a film so artfully and jaw-droppingly captured the journey from child to adult on-screen. And Linklater doesn't stop there. This is as much a story about the adult characters as it is its central protagonist. We see this boy, Mason, played over the course of twelve formative years by the same actor, as he slowly becomes a man. At the same time, we see those around him grow, mature, and find themselves. Mostly, this doesn't happen through any major revelation or melodramatic moment. It just happens, as it does to all of us. The evolution that we see onscreen here is almost hard to describe, because it's so naturalistic. BOYHOOD is a collection of small moments. But it's also an insanely ambitious, game-changing epic - a twelve-years-in-the-making odyssey that shows us how we become the people we grow up to be. This film is a flat-out stunning achievement from Linklater and his cast and crew. It's funny, inspiring, heartbreaking, awkward, and like no other film I've ever seen before. It is, no question, an early candidate for movie of the year.
For those unfamiliar, Linklater began filming Boyhood over a decade ago, and continually filmed new scenes each year thereafter. The unique process behind the film's creation has several interesting effects. The most obvious is seeing the actors change and age on-screen right before our eyes. This is especially dramatic when it comes to the movie's lead, actor Ellar Coltrane. Coltrane plays our protagonist, Mason, and we first meet him as a round-faced, big-eyed six-year-old. We follow Mason through the years - we see him as a young kid, as an awkward preteen, and, eventually, as an almost-fully-formed young adult. It's mesmerizing and jarring and captivating to to watch this metamorphosis take place. And the same goes for that of actress Lorelei Linklater - the director's own daughter - who, as Mason's sister Samantha, goes through a similar on-screen change. However, it's not only the kids growing up that proves mesmerizing. While the changes in the adult actors may be more subtle in increments, over time it's astonishing to watch actors like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette grow older in front of us. No special effect can replicate the subtle, year-by-year changes that take place in these actors. Aside from the actors aging though, Linklater's process lends itself to the sort of loose, slice-of-life feel the movie strives to capture. Just as the director checked back in with these actors every year to film new material, so too does it feel like we're checking back in with these characters - repeatedly dropping in on their lives to see what's become of them. The film's structure lets us fill in on a lot of gaps. But the effect is that of watching life itself play out before us in miniature. All of these little vignettes - no matter how seemingly insignificant in and of themselves - are part of this incredible tapestry.
So often, movies that follow one person's life over an extended period place all of their emphasis on traditional "big" moments. But Boyhood wisely eschews that tried-and-true tactic for glimpses at moments that are small, but also affecting, and in their own way crucial. The kinds of moments that may not be on one's personal greatest-hits list, but that comprise the sorts of seared-in-the-brain memories that resurface over and over. Conversations that stick with you. Childhood traumas. Parental wisdom. Parental stupidity. The kindnesses and cruelties of others. We see Mason go through these moments and we see him forming, being shaped, into the person he eventually becomes. Some are funny and small but capture some quintessential moment of childhood - like a young Mason innocently asking his dad if the sorts of magic characters he reads about in the Harry Potter books are real. Some are genuinely horrific and life-changing, as when Mason's latest step-dad - a drunk - lashes out at Mason in a violent incident that finally opens his mother's eyes to her husband's true nature.
What's so powerful about watching this unique journey play out is that over the course of the movie, we develop a sort of weirdly affectionate bond with Mason that's unlike anything I've really experienced in a film before. After all, we've "known" him since he was a six-year-old kid. And like anyone we've watched grow from that age, we really root for this kid. We see bad things happen and we cringe. We see good things happen and we feel pride. We want this kid to be okay. And so, every time Mason is exposed to one of life's horrible realities - whether it's an angry-drunk step-dad or a bunch of obnoxious teens who try to peer-pressure Mason into doing something stupid - we hope and pray that Mason will get through this, that he'll still be the good kid we've seen him be and know he can be.
Of course, this isn't only Mason's story. This is the story of his parents, played in career-defining turns from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. When the movie opens, they are already separated. Arquette does her best to start again, to raise her two kids with a father figure, and to give herself the means to find a better career. Hawke is the absentee but beloved dad - a guy off finding himself, trying to start a band, who pops in every so often for a fun day with his adoring kids. Just as remarkable as Mason's journey is that of his mom and dad. It's amazing to see Hawke slowly begin to mature and settle down and accept his responsibilities, even as Arquette's life repeatedly implodes, leading to a vicious cycle of self-destructiveness.
Both lead adult actors are phenomenal. Especially when you consider the span of time over which the movie was shot, the consistency of the characters (even as they grow and evolve) is amazing. Despite these two being established, recognizable actors, the characters they play here feel utterly real. They never devolve into cliche, and there's no one "good" parent or "bad" parent. Both have moments of ugliness, both have moments of warmth. Both, ultimately, are struggling to figure it all out alongside their son. They too are on a journey. I can only imagine that both Hawke and Arquette will be Oscar-nominated for their work here. It absolutely runs the gamut from low-key and funny to nakedly emotional. A scene towards the end of the film, in which Arquette breaks down in front of her off-to-college son, is so raw and powerful that it's a true punch to the gut. What floored me is how in that moment, we utterly relate to this soon-to-be-empty-nester mom. Over the course of the movie, all of us viewers have become like a surrogate parent to Mason, and in that instant, we share Arquette's emotion.
As for Coltrane's work as Mason, he's almost operating on a different level than most actors. It's hard to say how much of this is Coltrane, and how much is Linklater and his naturalistic filming style. But the veil separating Coltrane from Mason feels almost nonexistent in this film. We're watching both the actor and the character grow up, and it's difficult to separate the two. But what is easy to see is that Coltrane does indeed evolve into a genuine talent. He carries his later scenes with a real presence. In fact, by the time he's a teen, he feels like a classic Linklater protagonist - a modern-day version of the Linklater archetype. Like I said, it can be really jarring. I never would have expected the precocious young boy we saw at the film's beginning to become this artsy-cool punk-rock kid that Mason grows into. But there's also a real sort of awesomeness in this transformation. The kid's gonna be okay. He took the pain and turned it into something positive. He's going to do alright.
The movie operates on so many levels that it's almost daunting to write about. Essays will be written about Boyhood for many years to come. Putting aside the deeper-level stuff for a second though, there's just a weird sort of joy in seeing Mason go through all of the classic moments of modern-day boyhood. I couldn't help but smile as each new era of his life was, at least in small part, defined by whichever new videogame system Mason was playing at the time (what suburban boy's life doesn't have videogames as a marker of eras?). And man, for those watching this whose actual age parallels Mason, reliving their life through his is going to be a real trip. By that same token, this is a Linklater movie, so expect all sorts of political and pop-cultural ephemera to populate the dialogue - a lot of it really amusing. Hawke's liberal dad rants hilariously to his kids about George W. Bush and the Iraq War. There's a great, hindsight-is-20/20 conversation between a pre-teen Mason and his dad, post Star Wars Episode III, about whether or not they'll ever make more Star Wars movies. There's also a scene of kid Mason and his friends lining up for a midnight release of the final Harry Potter book that is pretty much cuteness overload. Towards the start of the film, Mason's sister annoys her younger brother with an endless rendition of Britney Spears' "Oops I Did It Again," in a way that will make anyone with siblings crack a knowing smile.
But then there is the way that Boyhood reflects universal truths through Mason's journey. Linklater's film could have just been a nostalgia trip, an amusing collection of scenes-in-the-life of a boy - but as great as each scene is as a standalone mini-story, the sum is even greater than the individual parts. BOYHOOD is a film with a lot to say about how we become who we are. It's about how we overcome adversity thanks to the resilience of childhood, and how we take from our parents and teachers and friends, but ultimately have to find our own way. It's about how the forces for good in one's life can overpower the forces that are destructive, and how in turn there can be an outwardly-spreading cycle of positivity. So many films show us how the sins of the father inevitably come back to haunt the son. In BOYHOOD, Linklater shows us how the boy marches on through adversity, finds his own unique identiy, and how he, ultimately, makes his parents into better people. Mason is no saint, and for all we know his life in college and beyond takes a downward tumble. He still has plenty of challenge and adversity and heartbreak in front of him. But he makes it through Phase 1. And man, that's pretty crazy and commendable and inspiring.
What Richard Linklater has achieved with BOYHOOD is something truly unique and special. He's always been one of the best directors around, but I think that Boyhood is his crowning achievement, and the sum total of what he's been working towards for years. This, I think, is Linklater's masterpiece - and that's saying a lot for a director who's got classics like Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, Slacker, Bernie, Waking Life, School of Rock, and many more to his name. The film could have been a mere novelty, but Linklater elevates it to something more - this is a work of art and a hell of a story. And it's presented to us in a hyper-real yet dreamlike vision that, as cheesy as it sounds, is like watching memories play out before our eyes. So yeah, go see it. This is one we'll be talking about for a long time to come.
My Grade: A