Artwork by TOMER HANUKA
BOYHOOD (2014, directed by Richard Linklater, 166 minutes, U.S.)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC It would seem impossible not to be moved by Richard Linklater’s intimate epic Boyhood, where the filmmaker took an epic leap-of-faith by committing himself and his cast to a 12-year shooting schedule. Following an entire family but especially young Mason (newcomer Ellar Coltrane), we see history not just imagined but revealed before our eyes. It’s a triumph of ambition, giving us an unusually immersive experience into those tumultuous years in which we come of age. Yet while the film is a certified must-see, Boyhood might have been a bit more distinct in its reaching for an “everyman” universality.
Not that Linklater gives us a model boyhood. When we first catch up with Mason he is six years old and hasn’t seen his father (Ethan Hawke as Mason Sr.) for over a year. Patricia Arquette plays his mother Olivia and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays his slightly older sister Samantha, and the family is going to be taken for a bit of a ride before the matriarch can steer them to stability. As a kid, Mason couldn’t seem more ordinary, and the film’s rambling, anecdotal quality is partially propelled by his character’s passivity. Mason isn’t the pilot of his life (who is in the pre-teen years?) and instead is left to react to the world swirling around him. Watching Boyhood, I was reminded of watching a great nature documentary; we’re here to observe how the species reacts to stimuli. In nature documentaries we don’t expect bugs and birds to show a lot of individuality and similarly Mason’s attempts to carve out his own world seem tentative, with his character still in the process of forming and becoming “himself.” Despite this, I wish that Mason could be shown to be a pawn to his childhood emotions sometimes, instead of the unusually reserved youth he is shown to be.
While affecting a subtle naturalism in its performances, many of the scenes are concise and pointed along the way. Particularly dramatic are the scenes of brewing violence, each with one of Olivia’s two new husbands: the first a professor who turns alcoholic and the other a former Iraq vet who also turns to drink as his career runs aground. The scenes will undoubtedly stir memories in much of the audience and as we study Mason closely for his reactions he too seems mainly like an observer of his own life. We see many moments we recognize from our own lives: new schools, first romance, first break-up, first time caught drunk etc. If Linklater is unable to infuse these scenes with the passion of youth (like Gus Van Sant has done in much of his work) he mainly makes up for it with his eye for telling details and his fluency with young actors (which makes me think I should finally see his Bad News Bears remake).
Olivia has her own trajectory over the 12 years, going from the youthful young Mom who is trying to educate herself out of near-poverty, through a couple of troubled marriages and finally into her own rewarding teaching career. We watch Arquette age as well and her exhausted tears as her boy moves on to college gain a real force through the time we have watched lapse. Early on Hawkes’ Mason Sr. looked like he was ready fulfill every cliché of the irresponsible divorced dad but even he grows up over the decade, trading in his goofy muscle car for the bland comforts of the mini-van.
Our national culture pops its head into the film over the 12 years as well. We witness Samantha’s spirited tweener rendition of Britney’s “Oops I Did It Again,” the kid’s late night line-up (in costume) to get the first copies of the new Harry Potter book as well as some Obama-boostering that let us know that Mason is a child of the 2000s, whatever the ramifications of that might be. The optimism of Obama? Even at the distance of seven years, Boyhood encompasses a nostalgia within its own time span.
As the film finally comes to rest on Mason’s super-groovy first day of college, Boyhood leaves us with an unusual sense of optimism for the future. While we’ve had cinematically unprecedented view into a character’s life, I’m left unsure that I knew much about the artsy, slightly cynical Mason at all. Maybe that’s not Linklater’s failing though, maybe Mason like many of his freshman peers, is standing at the cusp of self-understanding as well. Boyhood may illustrate a life’s trajectory from a hitherto unseen perspective but the mystery of where a life is headed is still left safely uncracked.