Boyhood (2014) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
3Aug/140

Boyhood (2014)

Richard Linklater (Slacker, Dazed and Confused) looks to his life and the weight of time for his latest, and deceptively simplest film.  In Boyhood he tells a semi-autobiographical story of growing up in Texas, filmed over the course of twelve years, with the same performers.  Boyhood stars Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, and Ethan Hawke.

Let's go dreamingThere's an old maxim of Gene Siskel's typically brought out in relation to bad movies.  Confronted with a dull or unusually bad picture it would be prudent to ask, "Is this film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?"  Because of the decade-plus logistics in constructing Boyhood that question takes on a new dimension.  Would it be more interesting to see how Richard Linklater kept his production focused for so long?  How about the conversations that allowed Ellar Coltrane and Patricia Arquette to keep their pained chemistry over the years?

Perhaps it's time to add an extra qualifier to that question.  When I was watching Boyhood, did I feel like a documentary of Coltrane and Ethan Hawke having lunch would be more interesting?  That is a resounding no.  It's impossible to ignore the question after the fact but only because we've been caught up in the perfect rhythm of a life story that blossoms when it embraces the inevitable decay that our existence necessitates.  Boyhood's true success is not in Mason's (Coltrane) story, but how his life is used as a focal point to see how gradually multiple lives are affected, sometimes by his actions and most times not, throughout a single existence.

This is the poetic realist conclusion of Linklater's body of work.  The threads of positive thinking throughout all of his films inevitably lead us into decay and death.  Before Midnight topped off an 18-year journey with a couple who seem unlikely to be together when we hit 27.  Even the vital and explosive philosophical musings of Waking Life end with its weary wanderer tiring of the conversation and finally letting go, drifting off into the unknown.  Boyhood charts this decay not mercilessly, but with the benign musing of a man who recalls the disappointments and pain of his life, and still faces the uncertainty of the next day without being weighed down by the previous.  It's as much an affirmation of life as it is a celebration of our eventual deaths, and how cinema is uniquely prepared to capture that journey.

Simple, suggestive, and clean is the mantra behind Boyhood's visual style. Here, moving forward with this relationship is blocked with reason, as they are one shove away from the end.

Simple, suggestive, and clean is the mantra behind Boyhood's visual style. Here, moving forward with this relationship is blocked with reason, as continuing on means a disastrous fall.  The only safety here is in stasis, and that is not always how life works.

The evolving cinematography of Boyhood tells another story that necessitates that question of what is going on behind the scenes of the film.  It's important to remember that when this was first being filmed he was fresh off the brash animated styling of Waking Life.  That decision informs a lot of the forced poetic visuals that oft-times mar the first two chapters of the film.  Mason stares at clouds, dead birds, and looks at underwear catalogs framed as though he is his own universe.  Boyhood very nearly descends into one of those "wise beyond his years" tales of young Mason as he wanders from one picturesque locale to the next and surprises his mom Olivia (Arquette) with inventive uses of the pencil sharpener.  It's gorgeous, but lacking in deep insights beyond, "Children think about things."

Even though year one is hampered by excessive philosophical musing in the visuals, the forced drama of the next couple of years evidence changes in cinematic philosophy over the course of Boyhood's production.  Huge elements are part of the film now with blocked visuals, looming cars driven by dangerous men, and an image of a battered Olivia loomed over by her drunken second husband Bill (Marco Perella).  Life, up through this point, is nothing but a series of broad episodes that are communicated through easy images.  If Boyhood had continued on this path it would have been exhausting, reducing Mason's life into story blocks that touch on another "universal" experience before moving on to the next, especially with the soundtrack constantly reminding us of what year it is.

As though responding to the forced drama of the chapter there is one final shouting match between Olivia and Mason's sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater).  Samantha screams at how unfair it is to move them away from Bill and his kids so soon, and how she's afraid they'll never see each other again.  Instead of following this with predictable drama, either another forced confrontation or shouting match, that turns out to signal a change in Boyhood.  We will never see or hear from Bill or his children again, that connection severed and immediately we see the toll that relationship took on Olivia.  The visual subject switches from the simplicity of emotional drama to something much more difficult to capture, the gradual lessons of life that are permanently etched onto their faces.

Arquette has the hardest role of the film, having to conjure up entirely swaths of development through her performance that happen off-screen.

Arquette has the hardest role of the film, having to conjure up entirely swaths of development through her performance that happen off-screen.  Thanks in part to Linklater's script, she responds with subtle motions of nervousness and worry, impeccably capturing Olivia's frustration that her life has no grand narrative.

From that moment on, Boyhood achieves the artistic perfection that the epic scale aims for.  It's a remarkable comment on how films are constructed as the extensive production allowed for an amazing course-correction like this.  Throwing away the poetic and dramatic styles of the first two chapters, Linklater works with cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane Kelly to strip his typical philosophical style of wandering to the barest means of information.  This dearth of environmental detail for the remainder of the film refocuses our attention to the gradual lines and scars that form on Mason's face, and the worry that continues creeping into Olivia's hands and eyes.  Answering how they live is more important than why they live, and in one of Boyhood's few environmental touches, shows how a body of water gradually wears down the land around it, only to disappear into the air.

Boyhood affirms life by refusing easy narrative, by trading blunt story beats for this ambiguous wear and tear of time.  Its beauty is in the seemingly uneventful moments that add that extra nervous tic or line of worry.  Consider the subtle duel of philosophies between Olivia and Mason's father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke, who continues as the perfect mouthpiece for Linklater's casual musing).  Her life will end in sadness because she set up her interests as a dueling narrative to the challenges she encounters in her years.  He does not concern himself with the answer to what life is all about, and Boyhood ultimately settles on that question as the joke played on all of us for existing.  Mason, to my gratitude, takes after his father, letting the river of time wear down on him and asking little about "Why?" along the way.

Too often we're preoccupied with that question.  Even Linklater's tried to answer it with his previous films.  In Boyhood, he's let go.  There is no universal truth here, just a boy who grew to embrace photography, loved a girl for a time, experimented in the backseat of cars, and worried his mother.  That's just the background.  The erosion, the fleeting life, that's the subject, and one that only cinema, where we can watch the cautious stare of the boy at six evolves into the lens of the man at eighteen, is able to fully articulate.  Those images can either be comforting vapors of a life well-lived before death, or constant reminders of how life fails to give easy meaning to anyone.  How lovely it is to embrace that uncertainty, to go gently into the night, and wonder what will come next.

Tail - Boyhood

Boyhood (2014)

Screenplay written and directed by Richard Linklater.
Starring Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, and Ethan Hawke.

Posted by Andrew

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