Thursday, August 14, 2014

Life. Time. BOYHOOD

The magic of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood is that he breathes new life into the coming-of-age story, a form that can easily feel overfamiliar, by supplying an epic sweep through nothing more and nothing less than a life lived before our very eyes. It’s not an isolated moment in a boy’s life that forever changes the character’s path and personhood. It’s a boy’s life, earnestly and compassionately allowed the time and space to grow on screen. A linear progression of naturalistic scenes follows the boy, Mason (Ellar Coltrane), from age 6 to 18. He’s inquisitive, artsy, loveable. He’s growing, learning, evolving, in a constant state of discovering more about the world and about himself.

Filmed over the course of 12 years with the same cast, the final product has the visual effect and emotional connection of watching in one go all of the Harry Potters – explicitly referenced here, read as bedtime stories and featured in a scene at a midnight release party – or Apted’s Up series or Truffaut’s Doinel films – implicit inspirations. Over the course of nearly three hours, the film sees Mason age, his face, posture, hair, and physicality a guide to the passage of time in this loosely played but rigorously plotted experience. The story of its filming would be a gimmick if it wasn’t so effective. It’s quiet and thoughtful, moving in its breadth of observation. This isn’t a film concerned only with this boy, or boyhood, but about being alive, about now.

For the first stretch of the film, we watch Mason, his single mother (Patricia Arquette), and his slightly older sister (Lorelei Linklater), observing their working-class suburban Texas life, school, work, play. On rare visits, their dad (Ethan Hawke) takes them places – bowling alleys, fast food joints, baseball games. He talks to them, inadvertently revealing strains of conflict in the estranged parental relationships as he advertantly speaks candidly with fatherly advice and about his politics and philosophical worldview. Though side characters come and go, these four remain constant, a portrait of a modern family living and loving through good times and difficulties. Mason’s boyhood is just one part of their story.

Mason is an observer of his family’s dramas, best represented by early scenes in which the little boy stares at a dead bird in the yard, giggles at the lingerie section of a catalog, watches cartoons, listens to the muffled sounds of his mother’s voice in the other room, and spies his parents arguing in the driveway. He’s soaking up the story unfolding around him, a narrative he was born into. The boy is buffeted by the dramas of the adults in his life until he’s old enough to generate some drama of his own. By his teen years, he’s become a more active participant, clashing with his mother’s new romances, finding puppy love, navigating drugs, alcohol, sex, part-time jobs, and artistic impulses. Friends come and go. Years pass; schools change; conflicts bubble up and retreat. Life is lived.

It’s absorbing, built from 12 years worth of filming on and off and yet able to maintain a consistent mood and tone. Linklater and his team – cinematographers Lee Daniel and Shane F. Kelly, editor Sandra Adair, production designers Rodney Becker and Gay Studebaker, costume designer Kari Perkins – create a consistent, believable space. The homes feel lived in. The clothes fit like the actors wore them from home. It’s a convincingly real place and time, filled with apt signifiers of the time. Linklater surrounds his characters with current events and pop culture, everything from the obvious hit songs on the soundtrack (Coldplay, Britney Spears, Sheryl Crow, Gnarls Barkely, Soulja Boy, and more) to the evolving technology – from flip phones to iPhones, from Oregon Trail to Wii – to the Iraq War, the recession, and the election of Barack Obama. These time-capsule moments flavor the background and the atmosphere while the focus remains tightly on the experience of moving through time with this family.

Generously portioned, Linklater removes the typical catalysts for coming-of-age change, no wild misery or traumatic death or disease. Instead he supplies a variety of situations that acknowledge the way people and problems drift through life, characters and conflicts important for a time and then gone, perhaps returning later, perhaps not. The film unfolds patiently and pleasantly at its own unhurried pace. Typical home movie and family melodrama landmarks both big – weddings, divorces, births, moves, graduations – and smaller – birthdays, holidays – play out off screen, time moving forwards through suggestion and implication. What we do see are slice-of-life situations that play out with a powerful empathy deeply felt and tenderly portrayed. That’s not to say the movie is devoid of conflict or dramatic turns. It has break-ups, alcoholism, big decisions, and emotional discoveries. But it’s situated between movie-ish construction and realist document in a thrillingly relaxed way.

Linklater uses long takes and smooth cuts, trusting us to fill in the story between the passing years with context clues. He’s a great screenwriter with a fine ear for dialogue and a director with a fine guiding hand with performers of all kinds, veteran actors, children, and non-professionals alike. Here conversations play out shaggily, laughter and melancholy mingle as scenes becoming story, small details build to a big picture. There’s an ease to the performances and scenarios that feels just right, key moments crystallized as memories, fleeting remembrances. It’s not Tree of Life stream-of-consciousness, but instead a present-tense waking life, potent and evocative in its gentle immediacy, living in the moment each moment. The small revelation: “It’s always now.”

In movies as diverse (and yet so clearly from the same artist) as Dazed and Confused, the Before Sunrise trilogy, Waking LifeSchool of Rock, and Bernie, Linklater’s intelligent and empathetic approach to moments and lived experiences creates films with modest, appealing surfaces and deep wells of emotion and truth. His visual clarity and sympathetic understanding of nuances in his characters behaviors and environs is so confident and unselfconscious it’s easy to take for granted. But its effect is overwhelming, and his style cannot be dismissed. In Boyhood, Linklater covers a lot of ground, but the project hangs together, incident and character alike, because it converts the small and intimate everyday moments into an epic that uses time as its landscapes, and ordinary life as its grandest adventure.

It’s a movie about how slow the process of growing up and maturing can be, how the cumulative effects don’t guarantee you’ll figure everything out. It emphasizes the importance of timing to both setbacks and serendipitous moments of beauty, clarity, and transcendence. It’s about change. We watch it quite literally, written across the actors ages, and as scenes add up to a portrait of a family as well as a childhood, dynamics changing, relationships evolving. But it’s also in the way people change, places change, situations change. People move. People reconsider decisions. People grow apart. Throughout his boyhood, Mason is confronted with people who represent different paths, different ideas, different outcomes. By the end, Boyhood movingly looks upon all this change and possibility and says it’s okay. It’s natural. It’s a part of life. You'll grow, change, move on.

Smartly constructed, the movie starts from its irresistible gimmick and gets deeper, more complicated and moving until it feels full to the bursting with heart and compassion. There’s the weight of a real life in this film, in its making, its structure, its story. It’s a movie of deep truths about the way we live, balanced and beautiful in its humane approach that finds compassion for everyone on screen, recognizing their individuality, their struggle, and their personhood. The actors, from the kids on up to Arquette and Hawke’s astonishingly nuanced work, give extraordinarily consistent performances so fully inhabited and pitched so warmly and effectively on a lively naturalistic level that they appear simply, movingly, as ordinary people in ordinary lives. There’s a genuine emotional intelligence at work here.

It’s present in every scene. I saw it in the mischievous punch a brother sends a sister in the backseat. I saw it in the smile of a little girl passing a note to a little boy in class. I saw it in the fear of kids left behind with an alcoholic. I saw it in the eyes of an elderly couple proudly gifting a Bible and a rifle to a step-grandson who fakes enthusiasm, a delicate empathetic moment, tender, beautifully sad, full of love. (The next scene the boy is taught to shoot and likes it, a warm complication.) I saw it in the tears of a mother sending a child off to college. Life moved too fast. “I thought there’d be more,” she says. A lesser filmmaker might have viewed these scenes and more like them as moments for jokes or judgments, but Linklater balances perspective through mirrored moments, reflections of characters in others, simple gestures with complicated meaning, actions that resonate and return.

For a film so long and rich, it’s deftly shaped, arriving with great power at simple truths. Linklater found in Ellar Coltrane a boy whose open face and intelligent eyes communicate great curiosity and thoughtfulness in a performance that adeptly grows with the young actor. Its no wonder Mason becomes interested in photography. The movie he’s in exhibits a fine eye for casual visual resonance. The opening shot is of the sky, bright blue with perfect clouds rolling by. A six-year-old boy is on the grass, looking up as far as he can see. In the last shot he’s 18, and the vast expanse he’s looking over is the future. Coming of age isn’t an event; it’s a process, a work in progress. We’ve lived this far with his family. Now is now. It’s always now.

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