Saturday, October 25, 2014
Director: Richard Linklater
Starring: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke, Marco Perella, Brad Hawkins, Jenni Tooley, Zoe Graham, Charlie Sexton
Running Time: 165 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
The most amazing thing about Richard Linklater's Boyhood is how it becomes the story of whomever watches it, as viewers can't help but reconfigure it in their minds to fit the templates of their lives and memories growing up. Ask anyone about this movie and I'll guarantee that within minutes they'll be talking about themselves. That's just how hard it hits. While it'll probably strike the loudest chord for millenials or parents who raised a child in that age bracket, the story is universal, resonating just as much for those, like me, who happen to fall right in the middle. In seamlessly recreating the feeling of watching life unfold in front of our eyes, much attention has been paid to the fact that Linklater was somehow able to covertly shoot this over a 12-year period, allowing his actors to naturally age on screen. It's an authenticity that all the CGI and make-up in Hollywood can't replicate, but it's not a gimmick. You hardly notice it's happening and it rarely calls attention to itself, instead enveloping the story like a warm blanket.
Linklater uses this tool but never abuses it to weave a narrative that unfolds with all the realism of a documentary, while also making sure it never merely feels like an experiment. Until now, the closest we've come to this is Michael Apted's Up series, which followed its subjects as they aged and Linklater's own Before trilogy which followed its pair of leads over the years. But this is different in that it's one standalone fictional film, despite being at least partially inspired by the director's childhood and own experiences as a father. And as someone who really appreciates music and pop culture as time markers, nothing made me happier than seeing it expertly used in such a way here. Everyone will have their favorite moments and parts to which they most relate, regardless of age. For once, 165 minutes almost doesn't seem long enough, even if it ends exactly where it should.
The film opens with six-year old Mason Evans, Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) lying on the grass staring at sky as the strains of Coldplay's "Yellow" blast over the soundtrack. The year is 2002 and Mason lives in Texas with his single mother, Olivia (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater). Their father, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) is largely absent, occasionally dropping in on weekends to take the kids bowling or to an Astros game. Taking classes and hoping to start a career as a psychology professor, Olivia struggles to provide for the kids while introducing a series of abusive men into their lives, each of which fail as suitable replacement for their real father.
With the family moving more than a few times, we follow Mason as he grows up and attempts to adjust, only to be uprooted again as Olivia tries to find herself. He says goodbye to close friends, makes new ones, faces off with a vicious stepfather, gets his first job and girlfriend, experiments with drugs and alcohol and eventually heads off to college. It all occurs as his relationships with his parents and sister evolve, set against the backdrop of key cultural events.
If someone told me this boy was being played by the same actor over the years I'm not sure I'd even believe them because he looks and acts so different at each life stage. With growth spurts and bad haircuts, it's as fun to watch the character evolve as it is to chart Coltrane's progression as an actor for over a decade, but condensed for us into feature film length, which only magnifies the impact. Thanks to Linklater and editor Sandra Adair the transitions between time periods are not only seamless, but invisible, often causing me to do a double take just to confirm we've moved on to the next stage.
As difficult as it may have been to keep the shooting of this project under wraps, you'd figure it had to be even harder to edit it all into a cohesive whole. While it sometimes meanders as life literally does, there was never a point where my attention was diverted or found the protagonist irritating, even when entering an angry high school phase that Coltrane infuses with heartbreaking sincerity. What doesn't change is that Mason is basically a shy, quiet kid throughout, challenging the notion that all movie leads must drive the action. Frequently, the action's happening to him as he sensitively responds to all that occurs, and is constantly changing as a result.
Certain movies can allow us to sympathize with those we wouldn't even try to defend or understand in reality because judgment gets in the way. That's the power in Patricia Arquette's career-high, award worthy performance as a single mother who seems to makes all the wrong choices for herself and her kids, at least a couple of times putting them in harm's way for the sake of trying to create a stable home life. Inadvertently, she does just the opposite, to the point that it would be very easy to call Olivia a terrible mother, and at times maybe even a selfish one. But Arquette changes the conversation, simply playing her as a desperate mom who screws up a lot, but has her good qualities as well. While we never see or hear exactly what happened to cause the deterioration of her marriage to Mason Sr., it's easy to put the pieces together from their brief, contentious interactions with each other regarding his visitation and frequent unemployment.
Hawke (who barely even looks to age throughout), appears more sporadically than Arquette, but his role in Mason's life is crucial, only increasing in importance as he enters adolescence. Of all the characters, he's the one who changes the most, but I liked how they committed to making him a good guy despite some maturity issues many would relate to. Far from a deadbeat dad stereotype, it's fascinating to watch Hawke believably play the evolution of a guy completely unqualified at giving any relationship or life advice to a full-blown expert by the film's end. Even at his worst, he's better than a couple of nightmare father replacements Olivia brings into their lives, one of whom is the centerpiece of the film's most uncomfortable section.
As Olivia's second husband Bill, character actor Marco Perella steals the show with a terrifying depiction of an abusive alcoholic who wrecks havoc on their new blended family. He starts out as a seemingly mild-mannered college professor, but Perella is brilliant as he slowly reveals the cracks hinting that something's really off with this creep. First it's a couple of drinks. Then a few passing comments to the kids hinting at his temper. Before long, he's like Bill Parcells on a bender. Then finally, his transformation into full-fledged monster is complete. He makes it happen so subtly and surprisingly that there's hardly a moment to come up for air.
Lorelei Linklater's work as Samantha can't be overlooked given how groan-inducing it can often be when directors cast family members in key roles, especially their offspring. A complete natural on screen, there's good reason to think she'd beat any young actress out for the part anyway. As we watch her evolve from a little girl to sullen young adult before our eyes it's remarkable just how much of her offbeat personality is retained over that twelve year-period and how naturally she interacts with her onscreen parents and brother.
The look on Mason's face when he realizes his dad traded in his souped up Pontiac GTO for a minivan says it all. The past is the past. We grow old. Time marches on with or without us. And it's scary. Linklater knows that nostalgia can be the most powerful feeling there is, as well as our biggest obstacle in moving forward. If it's not a valuable possession, then often it's music invoking an emotional connection to a specific time and place. Boyhood's soundtrack is more than just a collection of songs, but a document of a specific year, associating music with milestones.
Featuring everything from Bob Dylan to Wilco to The Black Keys to Arcade Fire, it's definitely one of the most stacked compilations of recent years, but more rewarding because of the context. And at the risk of spoiling it, I won't even go into what's done with The Beatles and how their catalog is, but actually isn't, incorporated into the film. It would be interesting to find out how much of the music was chosen at the various shooting times versus what was added recently in post-production. The script takes a similar approach with cultural events, taking us from post 9/11 to the Obama's election to the rise of social media, giving us the opportunity to open up a time capsule exposing the attitudes and feelings of the day. At one point Mason and his dad have conversation about the Star Wars franchise that's almost eerie given current developments.
Those who came from a single parent home or were shuffled from school to school as a child will connect to that section the most. A single father around Hawke's character's age will likely find a lot to connect to there, as would any single mother who even remotely went through anything close to what Arquette's Olivia did. The last third of the picture resonated strongest for me, as Mason prepares to head off to college, questioning everything and unsure of his place in the world. We've seen this kind of story arc before, but rarely presented so authentically and impactfully in such a compressed time. Mason and his first serious girlfriend, Sheena (an excellent Zoe Graham) stumbling and bumbling through their feelings for each other is a high point, as every interaction between them just seems so real and natural. There's a big rant from Mason about modern technology and an inspirational speech he receives from a teacher, but it's a soundtrack choice during this section that's most unforgettable, with Linklater unearthing a very recent gem that's somehow slid through the cracks, going unappreciated until that moment.
It's logical to think of Mason as Linklater's surrogate in much the same way William Miller stood in for Cameron Crowe in Almost Famous. Inspired by its writer, but very much his own character, he's stated in interviews how he was torn between using his jock or artsy side growing up as the template for Mason. The latter proved to be the right choice, both for the character and the actor, especially considering the dramatic possibilities it opens up in the third act, as an introspective loner looks for answers. It ends up being the culmination of not only Mason's story, but his parents' as well.
Whatever perceived mistakes the parents made in raising these kids, they must have done something right since both turned out better than okay despite the obstacles. Or maybe even because of them. And then comes the perfect closing scene, that creates the spontaneous feeling of arriving out of nowhere when in fact it was waiting for us the entire time. With a filmmaker digging down deep to pull out something we didn't know he had, in both concept and execution Boyhood accomplishes the special feat of depicting a coming-of-age story in a way we've never seen before.